In the first scene of Israel’s Best Foreign Language Oscar nominee, Footnote, Uriel Shkolnik (Lior Ashkenazi)—a fortysomething Talmudic scholar whose research has earned adulation while his sixtysomething father’s has mostly been ignored—accepts an honor with an obliviously glib speech built around a childhood anecdote about his dad’s attitude toward his own profession. The camera stays on the father, Eliezer (Shlomo Bar Aba), for the entirety of the speech, his facial expression subtly transitioning from discomfort to disdain.
Slowly, director Joseph Cedar sketches in the details of father and son’s non-bond. Eliezer’s old-school approach to academia is a day-in, day-out study of primary documents, while in his eyes, his celebrity academic son frivolously exploits history as fodder for cocktail-party and chat-show banter. But style sells what mere substance can’t: Uriel is a popular public intellectual, while Eliezer’s only claim to fame is in a single footnote in a volume of work credited to his mentor. To another father, Uriel’s success might be a source of pride; to Eliezer, it’s an affront to his life’s work, an embarrassment.
The stage thus set, a clerical mistake begets an academic scandal that, if allowed to come to light, would have major repercussions for both of the Shkolniks, their personal relationship, and the validity of their shared profession.
In the film’s highly politicized world of Israeli academia, hard facts are found in claustrophobic university offices and basement libraries, while everything in public life is at least partially fabricated or massaged. Eliezer, suddenly thrust at the end of his life from one space to the other, doesn’t know how to play the game. In the film’s best sequence, Cedar crosscuts between the old man, fueled by the ego boost of long-awaited recognition, telling an eager journalist “the truth” about his serious work versus his son’s frippery, and Uriel, who, unbeknownst to Eliezer, labors to craft a document to protect his father’s illusions.
Eventually, Eliezer’s talent for fact-finding bumps up against his son’s charlatanism—embodied by Uriel’s chronic misuse of a word—and the jig is up. At this point, Footnote suddenly and thrillingly breaks into a kind of paranoid magical realism. The film takes on Eliezer’s skewed point of view as his worst nightmares merge with his waking life.
Something between a comedy of everyday absurdity and a family tragedy pushed into the realm of the hyper-real, Footnote uses its characters’ differing relationships to authenticity as the basis for an enigmatic riff on representation. Perhaps too enigmatic: Cedar’s rigorous formal achievement is above reproach but, despite its increasingly operatic score, emotionally distant. Like its elder main character, Footnote is something to respect and admire but remains cold and unknowable.