Thursday, October 18, 2012

Fifteen minutes of fame


                "He'arat Shulayim" ("Footnote") is an Israeli 2012 Oscar contender, a 2012 Cannes screenplay award winner, and altogether a very highly praised movie. It tells a story about Eliezer and Uriel Shkolnik, a father and son, both Talmud scholars but with different amounts of public recognition. Eliezer devoted all of his life to comparing different versions of the Talmud but never published anything since his colleague beat him to it leaving as his greatest achievement a footnote in his mentor's book. On the other hand, his son Uriel wrote a lot of books on all kind of subjects and got praise for all of them. As a matter of fact, the movie opens with Uriel getting accepted to the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, the honor which his father never got, and it's immediately clear that Eliezer doesn't take it well. The plot thickens when Eliezer finds out he won the Israel Prize, the most prestigious national award, after 16 consecutive failed nominations, and Uriel learns that it is he who should get it and his father got notified by mistake.

                The profession of the characters could really be anything, it isn't of much relevance. What the film talks about is how easily people get infatuated with greed, jealousy and the (imagined) importance of their work. It also talks about the father-son relationship, not just through the example of Eliezer and Uriel but Uriel and his son Josh too. It shows the difference between generations but also the inevitability of our family ties. It is all well displayed in the behavior of Uriel. He tries to be a better father than his own but still makes some of the same mistakes. He also tries to help his father despite of the contempt Eliezer shows for his work, but can't help being angered by it.

                The movie is very precise in depicting how an academic community functions. It is all about prestige. Who will publish something first or who's work will be cited in a footnote. It is unbelievable, but true, what would people do just to get their name mentioned or written somewhere. A colleague of mine told me today "It's all about immortality.". But what does that really mean? A hundred years from now someone will be reading something and my name will be there. So what? Neither of us gets anything from that. But let's get back to the movie. In the beginning you sympathize with Eliezer. He has been working hard for years and just because someone got lucky it turns out it has all been in vain. But as the movie goes on we learn that he's no better than everybody else. He just wants the spotlights on him. In the end it's even suggested he realized that the award shouldn't go to him but he accepts it anyway. It isn't shown explicitly because the movie ends just before winners get on the stage, but I can hardly imagine any other outcome. And because of that we wound up feeling sorry for Uriel who won't get the deserved award and can't even get nominated ever again (part of the deal with the president of the committee) because of his selfish father.

                The acting is very good. Shlomo Bar-Aba in the role of the father and Lior Ashkenazi in the role of the son give subdued but impressive performances. Cinematographer Yaron Scharf did a good job showing libraries and houses crowded with books, emphasizing in that way the absurdity of wanting for your name to be mentioned just to be lost in a heap of others. Probably the best part of the movie is editing done by Einat Glaser-Zarhin. In the first part of the movie narrator lists things we should now about Eliezer and Uriel and it's a joy watching those sequences. The movie balances between serious drama and a little less serious comedy and is greatly helped in it by Amit Poznansky's amusing soundtrack. He often uses tense music to create a comedic moment, at the same time keeping us aware of the seriousness of the whole situation. The only thing that got me disappointed was the most lauded one, screenplay. While it has some great moments, like the one in which a numerous committee holds a meeting in the tiniest of rooms, it feels stretched and unpolished in places which decreases the overall impression.

                There's one more thing. The movie talks about many things. Greed, excellence, compassion, jealousy, revenge, dedication, fear, happiness, and more. But I just can't figure out what's the point. What did the author, Joseph Cedar, want to say with it. Just to be clear, this isn't one of those movies where people are wondering what is it all about. It's all very clear, it just doesn't feel like Cedar had a point to make. Maybe he just wanted to show how the things are functioning without drawing any conclusions. If so, I would find a documentary a better way to show it. If not...I don't know. Maybe I'm just too demanding. It's best you see it and decide for yourselves.


  1. But there won't be a documentary, ever, because characters like the professors Shkolnik would never allow cameras to bare naked their pettiness. So this is the best possible thing on the topic. And I love it.

    1. Never say never. Just remember how certain three Danes got into North Korea. ;) But to be clear, the movie isn't bad, it just left me a bit disappointed.

      Thanks for your comment! :)