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Footnote

I’m going to go out on a limb here and call the Israeli film “Footnote”, the best movie ever made about Talmudic research. Of course, I can’t recall ever seeing a motion picture that covered this subject before, so that branch seems pretty strong. Why should you see this 2012 Academy Award nominee for Best Foreign Film and winner of the Best Screenplay Award at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival(and also the second of the eventual five to be reviewed in my Summer International Project…aka SIP ’12)? Because it happens to be sharp, witty, exciting(!) and touching…with some terrific performances from some actors you’ve never heard of. There is an amazing set-piece around mid-film that centers around a meeting of a handful of researchers in a small conference room. It deftly and comically breaks down the ethical and familial dilemma of the awarding of a prestigious prize(the Israeli Prize being the coveted totem here), while never leave a space the size of a large closet…and with a group of actors who maintain a deadly serious tone throughout. It’s a bravura piece of directing(by Joseph Cedar)and editing(by Einat Glaser Zarhin). It’s one of my favorite moments onscreen this year. Don’t let the subject matter scare you off from this one. “Footnote” is an exciting and smart look at the relationship between some learned men…two of them being a competing father and son.                              Eliezer and Uriel Shkolnik(actors Shlomo Bar-Aba and Lior Ashkenazi, respectively)are a pair of professors of who study the Talmud at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Father Eliezer is an unpopular and stubborn philologist who feels ignored after a lifetime of exacting research. Once beaten to the punch(by a matter of weeks)by a rival concerning his most ambitious project, Eliezer fears he may be destined to having a footnote reference to his work(in his competitor’s published studies)being seen as his greatest accomplishment. Eliezer not only feels overlooked, he has also decided that modern researchers have it too easy via the use of 21st century technology. He covets the renowned Israel Prize, and lacks respect for the output of younger colleagues…including his own son, Uriel. Then one afternoon, Eliezer receives a phone call alerting him that he has finally won the Israel Prize. It is the most ecstatic the proud man has allowed himself  to be in years. However, unbeknownst to Eliezer at this time, he is not the actual winner. A clerical error has led to the wrong man being informed he is the recipient. The prize is actually slated to go Eliezer’s son, Uriel! Uriel is made aware of the mistake first, when called to the aforementioned committee meeting. And the question of what to do is posed and debated vigorously. Do they break Eliezer’s heart and spirit by telling him that a slip-up has occurred? Or do they continue with deception and award him the prize anyway? Not helping matters is that the committee chairman, Yehuda Grossman(Micah Lewensohn), is Eliezer’s chief rival—the author of the book with the footnote.               Earlier in the month, I alluded to the intention of  Agnieszska Holland’s “In Darkness” being the second entry in the SIP ’12 roster. But after an unusually active late July, which included the events surrounding “The Dark Knight Rises” leaping to the forefront, “Footnote” ended up usurping Holland’s film in the pecking order(I promise a review of “In Darkness” within the next week). “Footnote” energizes a subject that on the surface would appear monumentally dull to the average filmgoer. That it does so with a lively musical score and some cutesy camera tricks has been called a cheat by some, but I think it a wise direction. The softening of the story’s heavy material seems essential. Accusations of sentimentality are a bit more accurate, and the film is occasionally guilty of falling back on this device. But it’s a minor quibble with a spirited foreign language film that succeeds in making its subject matter both understandable and entertaining. The characters of both Eliezer and Uriel certainly come to find the “devil is in the details” in two totally divergent ways. And what will be the culmination of the central conflict? I believe you’ll find in watching the stirring “Footnote” that the method of how to arrive at the answer is more important than the answer itself.     Grade:  A-

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