The Oscar-nominated Footnote is an action movie about Jewish scholars. So the tensest scene consists of professors arguing around a table in a cramped conference room, until one impulsively shoves another against a wall in a burst of anger — and promptly apologizes.
Action here takes place in characters' minds, where synapses crackle, and in the pace of the story, which writer- director Joseph Cedar thrusts forward. Everything about the movie adds atmosphere: The music suggests a Bernard Herrmann score for Alfred Hitchcock, and the snappy editing makes the movie jump. If lives aren't literally at stake, lifelong reputations are.
Eliezer Shkolnik (Shlomo Bar Aba) has eaten the bitter bread of neglect all of his academic life. He spent 30 years trying to reconcile discrepancies in various versions of the Jerusalem Talmud. Just as he was about to publish revolutionary findings, a rival scholar, Grossman (Micah Lewensohn), stumbled upon a text that clarified everything and made Grossman famous.
Uriel Shkolnik (Lior Ashkenazi) is also a Talmudic scholar, but nearly the exact opposite of his dad: a respected big-idea man instead of a collector of details, a popularizer of ideas rather than an isolated researcher, outgoing rather than withdrawn. (I say "nearly," because both treat wives and sons with an autocratic lack of understanding.)
Grossman heads the committee that gives the Israel Prize to artists and scientists. His group wants young Shkolnik to get the award, but a secretary mistakenly tells the old man he's finally going to be given the honor he's mocked during the decades it was denied him. When Uriel learns the truth, he must decide whether to break his own heart or his father's spirit.
The title Footnote refers to Eliezer's academic standing: He's best known for a footnote granted to him in a reference encyclopedia by one of the great Talmudic scholars of all time.
It also could seem to refer to the central argument of the picture: Neither man's livelihood, health or relationships are at stake. But for scholars — and maybe for all who live by their minds — national recognition is proof that life hasn't been wasted.
The film stays untidy at its edges. We never learn the identity of the woman Eliezer slips away to meet in a park. Nor do we find out whether Grossman has been persecuting Eliezer, as Uriel claims. (A lot of the humor comes from Cedar's sardonic view of scholastic throat-cutting.)
Cedar is mostly interested in the father-son dynamics, and he cast excellent actors. Lewensohn, a famous Israeli theatrical director, makes his film acting debut, and the veteran Ashkenazi (Late Wedding) handles his low-key role with bearlike grace.
Bar Aba earns top billing in what's actually a supporting part. He lets all of Eliezer's emotions filter through slitted eyes and a slash of a mouth, and he does this so well that the final image — a close-up of his baffled, proud, resentful, anxious face — stays with us long after the credits.