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On Movies: This 'Footnote' is worth more than one look

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 12, 2012 - A fine Israeli film that was nominated for a 2011 foreign-language Academy Award, “Footnote” skillfully combines dark comedy with the almost tragic tale of an alienated father and son and the sacrifice one makes for the other. The film is directed by Joseph Cedar ("Beaufort") with a bravura visual style that helps keep it breathing as it plunges into the depths of academic infighting and Oedipal angst.

“Footnote” is one of those provocatively complex, nuanced yet forceful movies that almost begs to be seen more than once. (I’ve seen it twice, and it was even better the second time as I picked up more of the subtleties.)

Eliezer Shkolnik and his son, Uriel, are both Talmudic scholars at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, but in many ways they are as different as night and day.

Eliezer (Shlomo Bar Aba) is a thin, clenched man who glowers at the world from a pinched face and is most comfortable sitting alone in his cramped workspace in the university library, headphones blocking out all sound, searching ancient sacred manuscripts for minutiae.

He specializes in finding tiny inadvertent changes made by copyists over the centuries in the Talmud -- ancient sacred texts considered crucial to Jewish law and custom. His proudest achievement after decades of intensive study is that his mentor in Talmudic studies mentioned him and one of his findings in a single footnote in a much-admired book.

Eliezer’s son (Lior Ashkenazi), on the other hand, is big and burly and bearded and outgoing, and he looks at the big picture. Uriel has written many books, extrapolating from the evidence of the Talmud to recreate ancient Jewish cultures. It’s as if, his father sniffs, an archaeologist had found a few shards of pottery and, without checking to see if they came from the same period much less the same vessel, postulates a pot.

The conflict between father and son comes to a head when it is announced that the father, to almost everyone’s surprise, has won the prestigious Israel Prize for his work. The story proceeds from there, and the conflict deepens in a way that is sad and touching and yet ironically funny. I’ll do the reader a favor and not reveal any more, but I will say that “Footnote” is highly recommended, particularly for anyone who has any experience with academia. Or for that matter, with fathers and sons.

Opens Friday April 13

Harper Barnes, the author of Never Been A Time: The 1917 Race Riot That Sparked The Civil Rights Movement, is a special contributor to the Beacon.