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.
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
Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, Interim Pastor,
St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church, Irving , Texas