There are two Professor Shkolniks, a father and a son. They are both scholars of the Talmud. The father worked hard his whole life on research that, for brutally ironic reasons, never paid off. The son worked hard as well, but in more conventional channels. The son is amicable and less antisocial—the sort of man who can run seminars and give speeches all over town. He is, in short, more popular, and though he doesn’t realize it, it’s causing a rift to grow between the two of them. But then, the son is awarded one of the country’s highest honors, only due to a clerical error, it’s accidentally promised to the father instead.
Misunderstandings and mistaken identities are the stuff of farce, and Joseph Cedar’s Footnote, a new film from Israel, is certainly a comedy. But notice how much else is at work: there’s an irreverent take on Judaism, where sacred texts become the battlefield of petty squabbles; there’s a look at how academia, rather than a citadel of higher learning, is a Darwinian universe like any other; and there’s a complex relationship between father and son that, given its tone and context, becomes damn near Biblical. I’m surprised at the lukewarm audience reaction its gotten. This is a terrific satire, very canny in the way it balances tone, and given immediacy by its visual panache. It’s about the dangers of ambition and pride first and foremost, and how good, likable people can misunderstand each other. It’s smart enough to know that awards are a dangerous way to judge success or failure, and it practiced what it preaches by gamely losing the Oscar to A Separation back in February. (Though, to be fair, it did take home Best Screenplay at last year’s Cannes, which is just the right award for a film like this).
Perhaps the biggest point of contention will be the ending, which leaves a lot up in the air. My experience has been that a lot of audiences don’t like open endings (they have, after all, paid to see something actually happen). Personally, I dig them when they’re done right. This one asks you to guess, based on everything you’ve seen, what will happen next. The most likely options aren’t pretty. See it while you can.