Friday, April 13, 2012
Like Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, another film whose main character has what appears to be Asperger syndrome, Footnote runs the risk of alienating viewers with a stony-faced hero who has few social graces and a severely limited capacity for empathy. Extremely Loud (over)compensated for that potential handicap by banging on huge chords, like the events of September 11 and a child’s loss of the father who was his emotional lifeline, but Footnote keeps its content as prickly as its protagonist, focusing on the kinds of nit-picky academic differences that seem huge to the people involved and slightly ridiculous to the rest of us.
Yet writer-director Joseph Cedar (Beaufort), an American-born Israeli who seems most at home as a filmmaker when he’s straddling a fault line, does such a good job of surfacing the suppressed emotions driving the resentful, withdrawn Eliezer Shkolnik (Shlomo Bar-Aba) and his well-loved, outgoing son Uriel (Lior Ashkenazi) that anyone who has ever gotten drawn into a family feud or felt the death-by-a-thousand-cuts sting of rejection by an in-group should be able to relate.
The film’s perhaps too slow but nicely deadpan first half hour or so introduces us to the father-son pair, Jerusalem-based Torah scholars whose backgrounds are often revealed in montages that play like mini research reports. The two work in very different traditions, Eliezer having spent most of his career poring over ancient texts to painstakingly document a single theory while Uriel grew up to become the kind of “public intellectual” his father scorns, dismissing him as an academic lightweight.
Uriel’s light touch has made him something of a star on the lecture circuit, where he wins fans with a mixture of accessible erudition and charming self-deprecation while his father toils away in sullen obscurity. In a funny illustration of the day Uriel gave six different lectures in different parts of the city, which is presumably shown from Eliezer’s point of view, a series of miniature Uriels pop up out of a map of Jerusalem like scenes in an Advent calendar.
The sequences in which we unambiguously experience the world through Eliezer’s eyes and ears are some of the best in a film full of memorable scenes. As he sits like a rock, battered by waves of sometimes undifferentiated, almost always assaultive chatter, we get a visceral sense of why he loves his soothing daily rituals, and of the peace he finds only when he’s alone with a set of noise-cancelling headphones and a stack of texts to be deciphered. And when he gets the prestigious prize he has almost given up on hoping for, resorting to sniping at the winners as undeserving bullshit artists, little shifts in Eliezer’s expressions and body language let us know how much of his dour stiffness has been developed as a defense against the tide of established academic opinion, which has gone against him for so many decades. As Uriel puts it: “His whole personality has to reboot now.”
Cedar and his crew underline the comforting/suffocating narrowness of this academic world by placing both father and son in maze-like warrens or claustrophobically small spaces much of the time. Even the squash court where Uriel works out his frustrations and the locker room where he changes afterward are as confining as the library stacks where he and his father do their research. Uriel’s climactic showdown with Eliezer’s main academic rival, Grossman (played by Micah Lewensohn, whose Shar Pei forehead makes him look as if his brain has grown so big it’s pushed right through his skull) is all the more explosive for taking place in a tiny room so overstuffed with colleagues that they have to move a chair before the door can be opened. And, in a nice only-in-Israel touch, the characters are constantly being made aware of where they stand on the totem pole by whether they get waved through the omnipresent security checkpoints.
You sometimes feel the filmmakers straining to pull us closer, perhaps a little worried that they’ll lose us if they don’t ladle on some shtick. The omnipresent soundtrack can be a noodge, working too hard to maintain a sense of tension even when the action looks pretty tame (typing a letter of recommendation, studying an old text, etc.) And a sequence where Uriel loses his clothes in the locker room and winds up in a fencing costume, in which he stumbles upon and hides from his father, plays like an overlong buildup to an unfunny joke.
But on the whole, Footnote is impressively adept at surfacing its characters’ volcanic subterranean emotions and treating them with respect, while never quite losing sight of the underlying absurdity of their situation—and, by extension, the human condition.
Written for TimeOff