A father-son rivalry within the insular, ego-fueled world of academia is at the heart of Israel's Best Foreign Language Oscar nominee, "Footnote," an often comical film that packs an unexpectedly powerful punch.
Professors Eliezer (Shlomo Bar Aba) and son Uriel (Lior Ashkenazi) Shkolnik have taken different paths on their academic journeys. Eliezer single-mindedly pursued arcane Talmudic research on ancient Jewish law for 30 years -- a "philologist," he readily asserts -- only to be denied a week before publication by researcher and archnemesis Yehuda Grossman's (Micah Lewesohn) accidental discovery. With little to show for his career, the academic ascetic has been eclipsed by his son's prominence as a modern author and lecturer of Talmudic literature, work the father dismisses as lacking in scientific rigor.
In the film's opening scene, the camera hones in on Eliezer's physical discomfort as his son accepts entry into the prestigious National Israel Academy of Sciences he has been denied entry to. After years of toil, he's most proud of a single footnote assigned to him by a deceased mentor.
Then, the bitter scholar receives a phone call informing him he has been awarded the prestigious Israel Prize, the country's top arts and sciences award.
Only the call wasn't meant for him -- it was meant for his son.
When Uriel is informed by the committee that they want him to receive it -- and break the news to his father -- their frosty relationship and professional unease comes into fuller focus.
The film's most emotionally charged scene occurs after the committee has summoned Uriel, and is counterbalanced by being staged in a room so confining that everyone must rearrange their chairs anytime somebody gets up or enters. Uriel confronts committee chair Grossman on his father's behalf, and in doing so reveals dark secrets that force the committee to view its decision beyond purely academic considerations.
In another powerful scene, an interview in which Eliezer makes disparaging remarks about his son's work is juxtaposed with Uriel's attempt to write something meaningful about the life work of a remote father who remains a mystery.
Director Joseph Cedar, whose last effort, in 2007, also received a Best Foreign Language Oscar entry for the war drama "Beaufort," has chosen academia as a fortress to the outside world to showcase another form of internecine battle.
Using snappy graphics, including scenes that move past as if on microfiche -- the older Shkolnik often sifts through the celluloid in his carrel or home office, thick headphones on to shut out the world -- Cedar keeps the pacing and tension moving in surprising and richly revealing ways.
3 1/2 stars (out of 4)
STARRING: Shlomo Bar Aba, Lior Ashkenazi, Micah Lewensohn
DIRECTOR: Joseph Cedar
RUNNING TIME: 106 minutes
RATING: PG for angry words and grown-up situations.
THE LOWDOWN: A father-son relationship already at a low ebb is made worse when the father is mistakenly honored with a prestigious award meant for his son. In Hebrew with English subtitles.