Infighting in academia is no less vicious or petty than corporate infighting, perhaps because, as the cliché goes, the stakes are so low. "Footnote," the Israeli film that was a best foreign film Oscar nominee this year, gets inside the viciousness and the pettiness by casting its story as, ultimately, a conflict between father and son.
Standoffish professor Eliezer Shkolnik (Shlomo Bar-Aba) is a Talmudic scholar who has devoted his life to the original ancient writings in order to preserve their accuracy. His career has been largely spent in pursuit of arcana, and he has been marginalized by academia. His bearded, blustery son Uriel (Lior Ashkenazi) is a widely published and much-honored Talmudic scholar. Instead of being cheered by his son's success, Eliezer is resentful. To him, Uriel represents everything about academia – the careerism, the opportunism – that he has always disdained.
The story hinges on the announcement that the Israel Prize, the highest honor for scholarship, will be going to the stunned Eliezer, who must now reassess his attitudes about – well, just about everything. As Uriel remarks, his father "will have to reboot his whole personality."
As played by Bar-Aba, who is best known in Israel for his comic roles, there isn't much personality to reboot. Eliezer is a pinched, bitter man who wears a perpetual deadpan and seems most at home in the dungeons of library archives. Joseph Cedar, the writer-director (best known for "Beaufort") doesn't vary his take on Eliezer even when, about halfway through, a major plot twist completely alters the balance between father and son. The film's father-son polarity – the dour curmudgeon and the expansive glad-hander – is a bit too neat.
Cedar also goes in for some wayward ways of rousing the audience, such as dividing the film into cutely denoted chapters and larding the soundtrack with bombastic music. Perhaps he thought a movie about academic arcana needs all the oomph it can get. But the effect is borderline condescending. Did he think the story wouldn't hold up on its own?
"Footnote" is at its best when it gets into the cutthroat dynamics of academic competition, which are both horrifying and amusing. And Ashkenazi has a sturdy forthrightness that proves surprisingly elastic as the father-son dynamic changes and tables are turned. Against all odds, Uriel gives a good name to academia, which, if "Footnote" is to be trusted, makes the culture of Wall Street seem like a stroll in the park. Grade: B (Rated PG for thematic elements, brief nudity, language, and smoking.)