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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on DVDs: Footnote



FOOTNOTE (Also Blu-ray) (Four Stars)

Israel: Joseph Cedar, 2011 (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)


One thing I know I will never do is read the Talmud (IA) cover to cover — even in an English translation, much less, God knows, in the original Hebrew. Yet such is the brilliance and warmth and wit of Joseph Cedar’s  Footnote — which is really one of the best movie comedies of the year and  probably one of the best dramas as well– that, at the end of  the film, I wanted to read a page or two of the Jewish holy book. (There is a book on the Talmud here in my apartment somewhere, unopened like some other religious classics.)

It is not that Footnote (IB) put me in an especially spiritual mood, but rather because it wired me into  such intimate communion with its fictitious but real-seeming world and people — scholars for whom perusing the Talmud, and understanding it, arguing over it and being recognized for that understanding, were so important that it might actually blight their lives if something went wrong — as, in this movie, something did and does.

Watching Footnote,(2) you can see very clearly the absurdity of many of the scholars’ religious/academic quests and conflicts. You can absorb how their obsession with learning, in some ways, sabotages their relationships and darkens their lives.  But you can also feel the great animating force of their scholarly passion: their love for the Talmud, their obsession with its most obscure meanings,  and with what it means to them (for good or bad). You can feel it just as intensely as you can feel Romeo‘s love for Juliet, or Plato’s for philosophy, or Faraday‘s for magnetism, or Balzac’s for Paris.

The Talmudic scholars whom Cedar brings to such wondrous life here are  a father, a son, and the father’s worst enemy, all fighting or aiding each other, in a very convincing modern Israel. They are, respectively, Eliezer Shkolnick (Shlomo Bar-Aba), a punctilious, conservative-minded scholar who once tossed his own magnum opus, and whose proudest moment was being mentioned in another, greater scholar’s footnote; his son the populist author and media star Uriel Shkolnik (Lior Ashkenazi), who has easily achieved the fame that eluded his father; and, finally, Eliezer’s great foe Grossman (Micah Lewensohn), who beat him to the punch with a philological discovery that duplicated (but was published before) Eliezer’s theory and labors, thus making Eliezer’s life’s work redundant, and, piling insult on injury,  has been blackballing him for years since in any vote for the coveted Israel Prize and other high, desirable academic honors.


The movie begins with a lacerating shot of  Eliezer as he sits and glowers in the audience at a posh intellectual ceremony while his son Uriel accepts another honor, a membership in an academy that has excluded Eliezer for years. As he accepts, and as his father fumes, Uriel tells a poignant anecdote (later undercut) about how Eliezer insisted that his little son write  down “teacher’ as Eliezer’s occupation. Today, to a laughing, appreciative crowd, Uriel adds how proud he is now of what once seemed a humbler title than “professor.” But we can tell that Eliezer, far from being correspondingly proud about his son — whom he actually regards as a sell-out and venal popularizer — hates every moment of sitting there, and seethes with resentment. (The film’s narrator has already told us that this is the most difficult night of Eliezer’s life.)

Uriel — whose talent for winning friends and support is as surefire as Eliezer’s knack for alienating them.  — is a scholar at war not just with the unscholarly world outside, but with own little world inside. (The father’s favorite phrase is “This is a  nice idea, very nice. But wrong.”) And though Uriel wants nothing more than to see his perpetually scowling killjoy father honored — Uriel is the one who keeps nominating Eliezer for prizes — these efforts keep failing, as his father keeps being refused.

Soon however, irony and fate overwhelm them both. Eliezer, in what the narrator calls his “happiest day,“ gets a letter informing him that he has won the Israel Prize. His life has been redeemed, reclaimed — though, true to his sour disposition, Eliezer accepts even this seeming triumph by spewing insults to the local media.

(3) You notice I said “seeming.“ One catch: Eliezer did not really win the Israel Prize. His son Uriel was the actual winner, and the letter addressed to his father was a mistake. Something must obviously be done to clear up this mess (which is still under wraps), and Uriel fights to let his father keep the award, which incidentally would avoid huge embarrassment to the committee responsible for all decisions. But there’s another problem. That committee is run by Eliezer’s constant nemesis, Grossman. Cramped into a tiny room, lined with books, a  room where they can hardly move, the committee members and Uriel verbally slug it out. Eliezer is, for the moment, oblivious to the drama behind the prize. (4)

For me, the debate here was one of the most supremely suspense-packed conflicts of the movie year, or of several years. And a meaningful one. The ideas behind the movie, it seems, are that obsessions can be fascinating but unnecessary, that humanity (not to mention fatherhood and filial or philological devotion) can trump scholarship, as long as you’ve got mind and heart in the right places. Footnotes can be important, even crucial. (5) And, while most movie battles are both monomaniacal and predictable, this one is predictable, charming, funny, dramatic and full of both humanity and dark wit. (6)

The casting and acting of the three principals — Bar-Aba as malcontent father Eliezer, Ashkenazi as frustrated son Uriel, and Lewensohn as the relentless Grossman  — could be bettered in Heaven perhaps, but not in this movie. Bar-Aba, a famous Israeli comedian,(7)  knows how to keep from smiling, no matter what the temptation. (This picture has many.) Askenazi, a major Israeli movie star and matinee idol (here disguised by a graying beard), knows the secrets of effortless charm. Lewensohn manages to convey with absolute conviction the image of a brilliant scholar who is also the worst teacher/supervisor you could possibly have or imagine.

There are more acting treats. Aliza Rosen as Eliezer’s Yehudit,  Alma Zak as Uriel’s Dikla, and Yuval Scharf as the nosey reporter Noa, are all nice, very nice — and fine and smart and beautiful as well. The movie’s style is sprightly, engrossing and highly imaginative. The images by cinematographer Yaron Scarff are easy and exquisite. Joseph Cedar, definitely one of the best contemporary Israeli filmmakers, directs it all with a skill both casual and immaculate, and artistically innovative as well. At his best, he suggests not only the best comedy Woody Allen might make on the theme of Talmudic scholarship, but the best comedy The Coen Brothers  might make on it as well. Or Ingmar Bergman. (8) I realize those are sobering thoughts, but Footnote will, I promise, make you laugh. (9)

Meanwhile, I’ve been inspired. Cedar, like many excellent artists, makes you hungry for more.  Let me get up and find that book of Talmudic learning or of Zemblan (11) lore I have here somewhere, buried perhaps under “Remembrance of Things Past“ or “Pale Fire“….(12)

Extras: Featurettes


(IA) The Talmud, one of the two central texts of moinstream Judasm (second to the Torah) is composed of 63 tractates, or about 6,200 pages of standard print, with rabbinical opinions and essiays on many subjects. It is written in Tannaitic Hebrew and Aramaic, and is the basis for much rabbinical law. It is unlikely to be be read cover to cover by very many people, much less  a goyim. (Wikipedia)

(IB) Footnote was one of the five foreign language film nominees in the 2011 Academy Award competition. And a worthy one.

(2) Footnote’s Israeli title is “Hearat Shulayim.”

(3) Spoiler Alert

(4) End of Alert

(5) As Eliezer would say (and I disagree): “This is a nice idea, very nice. But wrong.”

(6) Cedar is also the writer-director of the superb 2007 war movie Beaufort, which was also an Oscar nominee.

(7) According to the narrator, Eliezer’s second favorite phrase is “Yes. One cannot draw evidence from fools.“

(8) Ernst Lubitsch eludes him, for the moment. He eluded us all, including Billy Wilder.

(9) So will Ernst Lubitsch and Billy Wilder, not to mention Woody Allen and the Coen Brothers and Stanley Kubrick. Or Vladimir Nabokov. And Bergman, if you get the right movie.(10)

(10) Smiles of a Summer Night or Fanny and Alexander.

(11) Zembla:  A distant Northern land.

(12) I couldn’t find it. Oh well.


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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon