Egos and ambitions collide in familial Footnote

“Footnote,” the marvelous fourth feature – and the wittiest and most accomplished – by Israeli director Joseph Cedar  begins with music reminiscent of melodramatic Hollywood thrillers of the 1940s.

The absurdly ominous score is so over the top that it’s funny. Indeed, the director is winking at us, acknowledging from the get-go that the internal intrigue about to unfold at Hebrew University’s Talmud department isn’t exactly a life-and-death situation.

Only it is quite serious, because the two people at the center of the film’s nasty yet often comic mess are a father and his adult son. And there are no higher stakes than the relationship between parent and child — especially when that bond is exposed and tested by the harsh light of reality.

“Footnote,” which was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film and won the Best Screenplay Award at Cannes, opens March 23 at Bay Area theaters.

Son and father Uriel and Eliezer Shkolnik are talmudic scholars at Hebrew University. photo/courtesy of sony pictures

“Footnote” is a wonderfully perverse movie, in part because we might expect an Israeli director to set a film about pride, ambition, resentment and deception in the military or government. And although Jews are, famously, the people of the book, there’s something both anachronistic and subversive about Cedar’s rampant and varied displays of text, from onscreen typescript to computer screens to close-up passages from books, in the (supposedly) post-literate 21st century.

The most unexpected element of “Footnote,” though, is the degree to which its director aggressively employs cinematic language to convey a tale of words and ideas worthy of Philip Roth.

We understand the graying Eliezer Shkolnik the moment we’re introduced to him, underdressed in a worn sweater at an awards ceremony for his son, Uriel. Eliezer is uncomfortable and inappropriate in social situations, either because he feels inferior to everyone else or because he has no patience for fools (that is, everyone).

The friendly, bearish Uriel, on the other hand, is at his best in a crowd, soaking up accolades and reveling in the prime of a successful life. He chose to follow his difficult father into talmudic studies, and has surpassed Eliezer’s accomplishments by a wide margin with a good deal of the race still to run.

It may seem odd to talk about the study and teaching of Talmud in terms of accomplishments, competition and rankings, but “Footnote” is in large measure about the universal nature of institutions and organizations. The Talmud department, with its unspoken standards, professional rivalries and personal grudges, mirrors every academic — and professional — setting.

The dusty, picayune and (to some, no doubt) irrelevant pursuits of the Talmud professors are meant to suggest our own professional pursuits, which we deem of huge importance and are, in the grand scheme, perhaps not all that essential. It’s a humbling notion, and it turns out that humility is one of the traits that Uriel must embrace.

The problem, you see, is an administrative screw-up that results in an underling calling the wrong Shkolnik with the news that he has been awarded the prestigious Israel Prize. There’s no way to correct the error in a way that will satisfy everyone on the selection committee, setting the stage for entertaining awkwardness and bad behavior.

“Footnote” does a terrific job of enmeshing and engaging us in the lead characters’ predicament, and making us debate what ethical or necessary choice we would make in similar circumstances. In that way it is reminiscent of “The Substance of Fire,” Jon Robin Baitz’s great 1991 play about an uncompromising, old-school publisher battling with his pragmatic children over putting out a piece of trendy, commercial junk.

One of the funniest and most painful scenes in the film consists of a long, intense meeting in an overcrowded, too-small office. The seriousness of the conversation is undercut by the ridiculous need for everyone to stand up, as if in a Marx Brothers film, to make room whenever the door must be opened to let someone in or out.

Ultimately, with its evocation of a failed father and a disappointed son, “Footnote” also calls to mind Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman.” It’s a mark of Cedar’s talent, and chutzpah, that he’s able to blend farce and betrayal into this unique and satisfying film.

opens March 23 at the Embarcadero San Francisco, Albany Twin, Camera 3 San Jose, Guild Menlo Park, and CineArts Century 5 Pleasant Hill. In Hebrew and English with English subtitles.  (Rated PG, 105 minutes)

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle. He teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.