A Jerusalem of Bizarre Thrills

Reviewed Film: Footnote (Hebrew: He’arat Shulayim), Dir. Joseph Cedar, Perf. Shlomo Bar Aba, Lior Ashkenazi, Alisa Rosen (United King Films, 2011).

“The reception of my film here in [New York City] is especially crucial for me, second only to its reception in Jerusalem. Not because there are many Talmudic philologists in New York, but because this city is home to the second-highest concentration of my parents’ friends.”[i]

I was sitting in a glitzy Upper West Side theater, participating in the 2011 New York Film Festival, when I heard this statement. And it could hardly have sounded more familiar. The Jerusalem-New York linkage is distinct to our small Orthodox circles, and the amusing sentiment of this announcement was so mercilessly Jewish. The man speaking was Joseph Cedar, director of the award-winning film for Best Screenplay at Cannes Film Festival 2011. He revealed himself to be, as was already all too clear to me, a child of American olim. Now this young man faced the bizarre and daunting task of presenting to a cinematic New York crowd his drama film about a rivalry between philologists in the Talmud Department of the Hebrew University. The concept of such a film sounded ridiculous, let alone its potential to captivate international audiences. But apparently it was just strange enough to become a smashing success.

Father opposes son in the bitter rivalry of this film; both are eccentric Jerusalemite scholars, but their profound disagreements and barely veiled contempt for each other’s work consume their relationship. Eliezer Shkolnik (played by Shlomo Bar Aba), the father who hails from the old guard of Talmudists, scours manuscripts and syntax with scientific, or perhaps more accurately, compulsive attention to detail. Eliezer’s field is scientific Talmudics, the goal of which is to clarify issues of language, authorship, and redaction in Talmudic texts. His work is patently uninteresting to the common population, and is constantly passed over for recognition, especially after a colleague’s discovery of an important manuscript renders his decades of manual research unnecessary. His son Uriel (Lior Ashkenazi) is a voguish scholar and lecturer, who pieces together creative and attractive theories from the body of the Talmud, and whose many books and classes have achieved him great success in financial and social capital. Uriel’s field is better characterized as philosophical or existential Talmud, generally a sub-discipline of religious Torah study, which teases out the Talmud’s worldview from its texts, and preaches contemporary versions of its essential messages. In contrast to his father, his accomplishments are recognized with the highest of honors, and this contrast is set starkly in the film’s opening scene – Uriel’s induction ceremony at the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities (ha-Akademiah ha-Le’umit ha-Yisra’elit le-Mada’im).

The story unfolds as a deeply personal drama of father-son conflict. Its climax arrives in a bizarre entanglement concerning the Israel Prize (the state’s highest award) for Talmud Research, an entanglement so categorically Israeli that I wondered if the rest of the audience was as amused as I was. Disdain for spoilers prevents me from revealing more of the plot here. The real marvelous effect of the film, however, lies in the brilliance of its storytelling and its absurdist theatrical construction.

In an ultimate statement of meta-thematic style, Footnote actually has footnotes on it. Perhaps to the unique pleasure of the Kol Hamevaser readership, the story is organized into a primary narrative with periodic interruptions of footnoted background information. Cedar explained to the New York crowd that in academic Talmud literature, the writing is typically terse and frugal, with few words on each page. “But the footnotes,” he added, “that’s where they really go wild.”[ii] The footnotes on this film served much of the same purpose, providing momentary excursions into unchained eccentricity in a way that the primary stage of the film simply could not do.

Beyond the shtick, however, Footnote’s most unique feature is intensive display of different characters’ perspectives. Scenes representing the personal experiences of Eliezer typically zoom in on details, sometimes to a disorienting, and even nauseating, extent. These scenes engender a tangible sense that the fuller picture is somehow skewed or lost. Uriel-centric scenes, by contrast, feel adrenalized and impulse-driven, as Uriel himself is drawn to hasty conclusions in his personal and familial turmoil, at times with skimpy evidence. When the Israel Prize drama commences, it occurs more and more to the viewer that each protagonist’s overbearing flaws destroy not only himself, but the other as well.

Overall, Footnote is a profound human-interest drama, with an additional edge of familiarity for committed Jewish communities, as it happens to be Israeli and happens to be about Talmud study, an activity we consider to be of inherent religious value. It therefore remains the duty of a Jewish Thought magazine’s film reviewer to determine whether Footnote’s Israel and Talmud characteristics can figure as more than peripheral in the film’s message, whether the film will, on their account, have more meaning for our communities than for others.

In Israel, this film represented something truly special for the nation. Aside from their general beaming pride for a homemade Israeli production achieving international recognition, many Israelis saw Footnote as a significant cultural accomplishment, overcoming the stagnant national preoccupations of the past. Limor Livnat, the current Israeli Minister of Culture and Sport, is rumored to have remarked excitedly upon emerging from the theater: “Finally - an Israeli movie that does not take place in a tank!”[iii] Israelis are eager to celebrate aspects of their culture beyond conflict and war, ethnic/religious identity and persecution, and to present these facets of their society to the international community. And this is not to mention that the film is especially entertaining for Israelis. As I mentioned above, an important premise of Footnote’s drama is an entanglement that gets at the heart of popular frustration with Israeli bureaucratic inefficiency.

In terms of Jewish religious meaning, however, the film is not particularly forthcoming. Despite dealing directly with the world of sacred Jewish texts in the holy city of Jerusalem, the academic environment of the story is decidedly detached from religion. The characters do not strike viewers as religious-minded, although the men do wear kippot, and it is feasible that their spiritual lives are simply not depicted. This omission is likely intended either to reflect a perceived reality of Talmud academics in Jerusalem, or to trim away from the story any complexities that diminish from the power and universal relevance of the deep narcissistic drama.

I can, however, try on the hat of Torah u-Madda-oriented culture critics, and hazard an answer to the question: What would the Torah say about the plot of this film? Sanhedrin 105b records the following statement of R. Yosei bar Honi: “[One] is jealous of every person, except for his son and his student.”[iv] My immediate impression is that R. Yosei intends to convey an essential and observable reality: A parent’s loving pride for his or her child is stronger than the human flaw of jealousy. Thus, even when a child outshines his or her parent with any accomplishment, the result is happiness (the colloquial naches), not resentment. The Gemara quickly identifies the source of R Yosei’s sentiment in David’s pride for his son Shlomo.[v] Still, the statement is posed as an observation and not as an imperative, and an example from one father-son pair, no matter how exceptional the father and son were, can only be a source for R. Yosei’s general observation as something symptomatic of a human reality, not as a stand-alone proof for this reality.

That said, Cedar’s plot ostensibly draws upon observation and life experience as well, and yet zeros in on a phenomenon that is at striking odds with R. Yosei’s sentiment: a father and son in bitter rivalry over their respective accomplishments in the same field. This father is, quite clearly, jealous of his son. Still, I can hardly say that the film is in conflict with Hazal, for several reasons: First, stemming from familial instincts, both Uriel and Eliezer do exhibit a grudging respect for each other at times throughout the film. Their rivalry seems to arise from an unconscious force of academic haughtiness that undermines these instincts. The son cannot help but see his father’s work as uncreative; the father sees his son’s work as imprecise. The instinct being undermined is in line with R. Yosei’s observation, and the force that undermines it is an anomaly of humanity, a tragedy of the culture of cut-throat academics. That this tragedy is anomalous is perhaps the very reason that Footnote has proven so intriguing to a wide audience. The context is familiar to all, the course of events off-kilter and downright unsettling.

And even if I were to present R. Yosei and Cedar as opposing views on family relationships, the difference in their societal contexts and upbringings should be more than enough to account for this. Perhaps the Talmudic era father had sensitivities much more adverse to family rivalries than does the modern Israeli father. Or perhaps Cedar himself witnessed an unusual dynamic in certain families. But, of course, this is all conjecture, the sort of unrestrained literary analysis, which, as Talmud scholars will confirm, belongs only in footnotes.[vi]

Chesky Kopel is a junior at YC majoring in English and History, and is an editor-in-chief for Kol Hamevaser.

[i] Joseph Cedar, director of Footnote. I heard this from him myself, and the context will soon become clear.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Avner Shavit, “How is it possible that Footnote is the first Israeli film about academic intrigue? (Transl. from Hebrew mine),” Walla!, May 31, 2011, available at: http://e.walla.co.il/?w=/266/1828253.

[iv] Translation mine. An additional appearance of this statement in Yalkut Shim’oni, Pinhas 247:776, s.v. ve-natatah me-hodekha identifies R. Yosei bar Honi as R. Yosei bar Hanina, a well-known second-generation Jerusalemite Amora.

[v] See Rashi ad loc., s.v. mi-shelomoh; I Kings 1:47.

[vi] This is meant in contrast to the main body of my review, namely my analysis of Footnote’s plot, theatrical presentation, and cinematography.