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July 24, 2012

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On DVD/Blu-ray – Review: Footnote (2011)

by HELEN GEIB

Today’s DVD/Blu-ray pick is a qualified recommendation of Israeli drama Footnote, a prize-winner at home and one of the Academy Award nominees for best foreign language film for 2011. While I frequently encourage people to get out there and see things in the theater the way they were meant to be seen, I do acknowledge there are movies that suffer little in the transition to home viewing. I suspect Footnote may actually play better on the small screen.

Eliezer Shkolnik (Shlomo Bar-Aba) is a study in disappointment. The proudest moment of his career came early on when he was cited by name in a footnote of his mentor’s monumental work of Talmudic studies. The direct reference supports an interpretation of the title as an oblique assessment of Eliezer’s scholarship, the product of a decades-long myopic obsession with copyists’ errors in Medieval manuscripts.

In contrast, son Uriel (Lior Ashkenazi) is enjoying his middle years in well-rounded prosperity. An academic career in his father’s field has met with success after success; this despite, or perhaps because, his own scholarship is trendy and lightweight. Eliezer’s unspoken but palpable resentment at his concomitant professional eclipse is one of the stronger drivers of father-son dysfunction.

There’s a scene at the film’s mid-point that aptly illustrates its strengths and weaknesses. In what a title card tells us is the happiest moment of his life, Eliezer has been told that he is to be awarded the prestigious Israel prize. A day or two later Uriel receives a cryptic summons to meet with a functionary in the education ministry. The meeting is in a cramped, windowless, utilitarian office in a building to match. Already in attendance are the functionary, prize committee members, and ubiquitous legal counsel. An assistant dialed the wrong Shkolnik; the prize is meant for Uriel.

The attendees fill the office well beyond its intended capacity and getting Uriel in and then out and then back in again- when he needs a moment alone to process the news- is a comedy routine. The movie likewise is fitfully funny; fitfully but genuinely funny.

Alongside Bar-Aba’s performance as Eliezer, the movie’s strong point is the satire of academia, filled out with finely delineated portraits of its denizens. Uriel and the committee head, not incidentally Eliezer’s career-long rival/nemesis, get into a protracted verbal slugfest while the rest wait it out in embarrassed silence. It’s an ugly exchange exposing the hypocrisy, self-absorption, and pettiness of the ivory tower. The staging itself is a biting comment on the characters’ parochialism and skewed priorities.

Less positively, Uriel’s behavior in this linchpin scene is highly problematic. There are several points at odds with the characterization drawn elsewhere in the film, beginning with a political animal such as he not proposing, or even considering, a political solution to the screw-up produced dilemma. The filming of the scene also summarizes the generally uninteresting visual aesthetic. The director leans heavily on close-ups, the faces sometimes partly cut off for no evident reason, and shot-reverse-shot editing with a tennis match rhythm.

Extras on both the DVD and Blu-ray are two short features, “An Evening with [director] Joseph Cedar” and “Behind the Scenes”, and the film’s soundtrack.

Other new releases this week: The Deep Blue Sea, Jiro Dreams of Sushi, Silent House


2 Comments Post a comment
  1. doc
    Jul 24 2012

    Question: why are academic politics so vicious?

    Answer: because the stakes are so small.

    Comment: you must care about the characters before you care about their petty problems.

  2. Jul 26 2012

    There’s a good bit where Eliezer’s mortal enemy betrays in a fit of spite, that he’s resentful of the footnote despite coming out the “winner” in life. It is all very petty, accentuated by the deliberate irony of their field of study.

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