Though this Israeli movie was nominated for an Oscar for best foreign film of the year, it’s not going to attract a wide American audience. Even overcoming the subtitles, the subject matter is most sublime: the arcane, archaic, idiosyncratic world of professional Talmud scholars.
Professor Uriel Shkolnik (Lior Ashkenazi) is a big-teddy-bear kind of dignified persona who has managed to write some semi-popular books on the subject of Talmudic research, which is no small feat. In fact, his work has been noted by the very small professional organization of fellow Talmudic scholars who want to present him with their prestigious annual Israeli Award. Except there was an idiotic administrative error: his father was notified as being the recipient instead.
His father, Professor Eliezer Shkolnik (Shlomo Bar-Aba) is an eccentric iconoclast, maybe autistic, maybe with Asberger’s, who has been obsessed all his life with the kind of research that would “prove” there was a distinctly European Talmud that the rest had copied from, but has since been lost (the equivalent in New Testament scholarly studies would be the missing Q document, assumed and inferred but never located). Just when Eliezer was on the verge of publishing his breakthrough painstaking analysis, a rival colleague uncovered the actual document, got published first, and made Eliezer’s lifework immediately moot. We suspect that the colleague had his own jealousy-induced personal reasons for not including or even acknowledging Eliezer’s work, but, regardless, Eliezer has since become even more isolated and embittered, including mostly estranged from his son, Uriel, who’s given up trying to be nice, despite his mother’s continual attempts at peacemaking.
So this administrative gaffe produces a huge crisis, both in the Shkolnik family and in the tight little ingrown community of Israeli Talmudic scholars. Uriel is first asked to inform his father of the mistake, which he refuses to do, saying it wasn’t his error. He tries to insist that the award be given to his father, anyway, since he realizes his father’s previous disdain for the award is actually a thin disguise for his own eager longing for recognition. The other scholars tell Uriel that if he wants to cede his award to his father, they won’t stop him, but he won’t be getting his own in addition to it, either now or later, and besides, the award itself would somehow be diminished by being presented to a less than worthy recipient.
Aargh. The angst. The Oedipal rage. The patricidal urges. And Uriel then has to deal with the professional evisceration and personal emasculation from his own long-suffering wife? Oy vey.
Somehow they make us amateurs understand some of obscure issues, and even care about the characters, though none of them are all that lovely. But this is one of those foreign cinematic creations that doesn’t adhere to Hollywood formula. Most of the way through you have no idea where it’s going. And so “Footnote” begins to assume a broader appeal to a more adventurous moviegoing audience.
Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, Interim Pastor, St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church, Irving , Texas