Joseph Cedar's film Footnote explores the main definitions and contradictions of "Talmudic" living: the tensions between rivals, the relationships of humans to texts, the unquenchable thirst for the recognition of one's peers, and especially the unresolvable struggle of humor v. humorlessness.
The DVD is scheduled for release July 24, 2012.
The Times had a superb review for the film when it opened in New York. They have a nice short video interview at their site too.
Ego and Envy, So It Is Written
By KRISTIN HOHENADEL
THE world is full of unsung academics who toil all their lives in an obsessive quest for knowledge — and a reputation-making breakthrough in their chosen field — only to end up a footnote in someone else’s brilliant career.
Israel’s contender for this year’s foreign-language Academy Award was Joseph Cedar’s “Footnote,” a tragicomic tale of rival father-and-son Jewish scholars in the Talmud department of Hebrew University in Jerusalem. A universal story with an esoteric setting, the film was a box-office hit in Israel, winning that country’s version of an Oscar for best picture, and best screenplay at the Cannes Film Festival. The movie, which was an Oscar finalist, opens in New York on Friday.
“Israeli films have always struggled to find their connection to the larger Israel,” said the soft-spoken, serious-minded Mr. Cedar, the film’s writer and director, during a New York visit. “I come from a yeshiva background, so I studied the Talmud from a religious angle most of my life. No other culture has created a document so vast and so detailed that continues to be relevant. The text is the source of our culture. This film touches something that has to do with our identity.”
Born in Manhattan, Mr. Cedar moved to Israel with his family in 1973, when he was 5, but held onto his pitch-perfect English. He studied philosophy and the history of theater at Hebrew University, and filmmaking at New York University. “Footnote” is his fourth film. His previous movie, “Beaufort,” about Israeli soldiers in southern Lebanon, was also an Oscar finalist.
“I’m used to speaking to journalists as an Israeli, and it always has a political side to it,” Mr. Cedar said. “This film got me off the hook a little bit in the sense that I’m not finding myself too much in the service of the Israeli foreign ministry.”
The idea for “Footnote” struck when Mr. Cedar received a call announcing that he had won an award that he mistakenly believed was meant for his father, Howard Cedar, a biochemist who teaches at Hebrew University and is a winner of the Israel Prize, his country’s highest honor. In the film a misunderstanding over which member of the family has been awarded the Israel Prize pits father against son, and ultimately each man against himself.
“Awards motivate, and they raise the bar,” Mr. Cedar said. “I can say with 100 percent certainty that without the Oscars American cinema wouldn’t be as good. But any kind of national prize causes its recipients to compromise something in their integrity. There’s no question that there’s a tax you pay when you’re willing to be embraced by the establishment. There’s an inherent contradiction. You’re proud of your achievement; you’re ashamed that you needed it. And I think it’s true for anyone standing on that podium. This has become a pretty big issue in my life. I’m investigating it.”
Mr. Cedar said he didn’t know much about the inner workings of his alma mater’s Talmud department, renowned for its uncompromising standards and eccentric characters, before he began looking for an academic field in which to set the story. But he became fascinated by the academics who devote their lives to studying the intricacies of the Talmud, a foundation of Jewish law and culture.
“A lot of these scholars start out with a lot of ambition, and over the years that ambition is chipped and chipped,” Mr. Cedar said. “Some of them have never published anything because they’re so terrified of making a mistake. It turns some of them into people who are very, very hard to live with, harsher than you see in the film. There are real people that live in this tension that is unbearable, and it has to do with their area of study, but it’s also a competitiveness that never gives them any satisfaction or fulfillment.”
Eliezer Shkolnik (played by Shlomo Bar Aba) is a taciturn and long-frustrated philologist who analyzes Talmudic manuscripts in exacting detail, laser focused on the paralyzing task of recreating an authentic master version of that ancient collection of recorded oral texts before attempting to decipher what it all means.
A rising star with a gift for schmooze, his son, Uriel (Lior Ashkenazi), writes bold, popular theoretical books, eclipsing Eliezer in honors and accolades, becoming a nemesis who represents a new world order that Eliezer reviles and loathes.
“The tradition of fierce argument over words, the tension of generations, the tension between what is oral and what is written, these are all very basic things that drive the Talmud,” Mr. Cedar said. “That’s what this film is about.”
Mr. Bar Aba, a household name in Israel who nonetheless hadn’t been in a film in 24 years, said by phone from Israel that he was hardly an obvious choice for the role of Eliezer, having skipped his Talmud classes in high school. Best known for his antic performance style — one of his signature characters is a wild horse — he said he is often described as an Israeli Robin Williams.
“When I invited my psychologist to see me onstage, she said I acted like a Jew with Germans aiming a gun at my head, telling me the second I stopped being funny, they would shoot,” Mr. Bar Aba said through a translator. “I was very surprised Joseph would approach me for such a quiet and introverted role.”
Mr. Cedar said he told Mr. Bar Aba that “this character is full of a murderous rage that can never come out,” adding, “It was his job as an actor to hold in that rage for the entire film.”
Meanwhile Mr. Ashkenazi didn’t seem to break a sweat. “Lior is a real leading man, he’s Cary Grant,” Mr. Cedar said. “Things come easily to him, so he doesn’t really have to prepare.”
Mr. Bar Aba said of his co-star: “He drove me crazy! One take and he went for a drink!”
Nevertheless Mr. Ashkenazi did have some guidance in preparing for his role from Moshe Halbertal, a professor of Jewish thought and philosophy at Hebrew University who also teaches at the New York University law school, and whose career trajectory bears a passing resemblance to Uriel’s (though he denies any resemblance to the character).
Did he ever imagine that anyone would want to make a movie about the Talmud department?
“No, no, I did not,” Mr. Halbertal said by phone from Jerusalem with a chuckle. “You need someone who can understand the larger potential of such particular drama. And the ongoing touch of irony in the movie gave it a genuine sense of proportion. I think part of the power of the movie is that it can speak simultaneously to insiders and observers.”
Mr. Halbertal said that he sensed among his peers, many of whom watched the film in a special screening for Hebrew University faculty, “a feeling that the film represented something deep about that world, that it brought to life serious issues and struggles, that having a life’s quest doesn’t isolate you from human vulnerabilities.”
After the screening a philologist from the Talmud department presented Mr. Cedar with a challenge: “He said, ‘I noticed I’m No. 4 in the credits, and it’s not alphabetical, so it must be by importance, and I just want to know, why is this guy more important than I am?’ ” Mr. Cedar recalled. “So I said, ‘You know there’s a third option: It can just be random.’ And his answer was, ‘Nothing is random.’ That’s how these people feel. It somehow made its way to the screen. It means something. It’s not random, and it’s our job to figure out why.”