Israel and Iran aren’t exactly on the best of terms these days, but their filmmaking is on equal footing. Iran’s A Separation, my favorite movie last year, won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, but Footnote, the nominee from Israel, is no slouch, either. Opening today, Joseph Cedar’s bone-dry comedy begins with a classic bit of misdirection, as the noted Talmudic researcher Eliezer Shkolnik (who, huffily, prefers the term “philologist”) attends yet another pretentious academic awards ceremony–not, as we soon learn, for him, but for his more famous son, Uriel, who has followed in his father’s footsteps and has surpassed his achievements in every way. His stone face in place, Eliezer endures a speech by Uriel that he thinks honors his dad, but registers with the older scholar as just the latest in a life-long series of slights and belittlements he’s suffered at the hands of the petty, trivializing establishment, represented by his glad-handing, mediagenic progeny.
Then, a change. Eliezer learns that after decades of being passed over in favor of his inferiors (“folklorists,” he murmurs, dismissively) he has won the most prestigious plaudit of all, the coveted Israel Prize. In the glow of this lighting strike of recognition he basks, quietly–he speaks maybe two dozen sentences in the entire film. But Uriel learns the bitter truth–the prize was meant for him, and not his father, the result of an embarrassing clerical error. In a scene that would fit right into one of Albert Brooks’ flopsweat comedies, like Lost in America, Uriel, a yakker, pleads with the awards committee to give Eliezer the prize, fearing that news of the mistake will kill him. There are, however, repercussions, which you need to learn for yourself as Cedar’s icily elegant screenplay unspools.
“Tone is the most mysterious part of a film,” Cedar tells the current issue of Cineaste. (And the tone of Footnote could not be any different from that of Cedar’s previous Oscar nominee, the Lebanon-set war film Beaufort, which is streaming on Netflix Instant.) Footnote doesn’t behave like other comedies. When Uriel pleads his case before the awards committee, the movie is (briefly) laugh-out-loud funny, as the notables are crammed into a tiny room that can hardly fit an extra chair for the harried scholar–but the scene has a harsh undercurrent, as the committee chair, who undercut Eliezer’s one claim to fame (the scholarly footnote of the title), unloads his grievances about the elder Shkolnik and Uriel lashes out, disproportionately. The entire movie has an undertow of resentment–Uriel, self-righteous and a bit of a prick to his family and colleagues, wants to do right by the solemn, long-suffering Eliezer, who shuns Uriel for being a phony and an elitist, but also craves the honors that flows naturally to his son.
Despite its jaunty score and lighthearted style it’s a movie made for squirming, and an apt double feature with the Coen brothers’ elusive, uncomfortable, and strangely delectable A Serious Man, which also ripped into academia. Shlomo Bar Aba (Eliezer) and Lior Ashkenazi (Uriel) are a perfectly matched pair as a deeply imperfect father and son who can’t help but rub each other the wrong way. “I like the challenge of beginning with an idea that I don’t know how to put on screen,” Cedar told Cineaste. “I lose interest if making the film becomes too easy.” There’s nothing that’s easy, but much that’s rewarding, about the painfully funny Footnote.