Deciphering the nuances of millennia-old scrolls in the hallowed halls of academia might not seem like the most exciting job in the world, let alone the most exciting film. And that can be particularly true of Israeli pictures whose studios help get out of the festival ghetto -- movies that often exhibit a slow, cerebral pace. Thankfully, Footnote wipes out that stuffy image, let alone snail-like tempo, with the energy of a ‘roided nerd who’s just aced his Hebrew School exams. Images and information fly through the screen like a microfilm machine on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Music blares with the pizzicato mania of a Tom and Jerry cartoon as crossed with a lunatic Viennese waltz. And a confrontation in a closet-sized conference room ends with a fist upside a professor’s nose.
These are but some of Footnote’s entertaining bits of educational excess, not that you could tell from the uptight reactions of the uber-academic Skolnik family. Stone-faced dad Eliezer (Shlomo Bar Aba) has alienated everyone with his fastidious research, not that it’s stopped his far more successful and liked son Uriel (Lior Ashkenazi) from becoming a top Talmudic scholar in his own right. But just when it seems like his miserable pop has finally gained the long-deserved recognition of the Israel Prize, it’s revealed that the award was really meant for Uriel. Determined to prevent the honor from getting yanked out from under his unknowing father’s feet, Uriel fights to give the laurels to the wrong guy, and in the process, threatens to become an even bigger son of a bitch than his dad.
A dramedy of extraordinary perceptiveness toward the argumentative Hebrew condition, one might mistake Footnote’s dry humor and blankly staring characters as the work of the Israeli answer to the Coen brothers -- minus the onerous clichés of their Jew-gone-wrong movie, A Serious Man. But what makes Footnote even more of a pleasant surprise is that it’s the work of Joseph Cedar -- an Israeli writer-director best known for such politically charged, and internationally acclaimed movies as the military-themed Time of Favor and Beaufort.
Born in New York, but Israeli in just about every way when his family moved to the motherland, Cedar’s own religious roots are those of Orthodox Jewry. And though his dad wasn’t some Talmudic Einstein, Cedar’s father Howard is a justified recipient of the Israel Prize, winning in the category of biology. Cedar did him proud by getting degrees in philosophy and theater there before returning to his hometown to study cinema at New York University. Writing Footnote with the believability of someone who barely escaped alive from the cutthroat realm of academia; Cedar’s words won him the Screenplay Award at Cannes. Yet there’s only one piece of gold that truly counts in the world, and his name is Oscar. And sure enough, Cedar’s bravura picture has gotten a nomination at the Academy as well, for Best Foreign Film. Now poised to truly convert American audiences to Israeli filmmaking, Cedar talks about giving the mysteries and madness of the Talmud a universally smart and entertaining language that could apply to any grumpy old father-and-son Hollywood flick.
Daniel Schweiger: What’s the trick in making Footnote so accessible?
Joseph Cedar: Making Footnote was the most satisfying thing I’ve ever done, especially because we took something that seemed too esoteric and made it into a fun experience. That’s because I think Footnote touches an emotion that people want to follow. I like to picture it as a boxing movie, in that there are two men in a ring trying to knock each other down, yet they happen to be philologists who use words instead of boxing gloves. So I guess you could call this the philological version of Warrior, where you’ve got two family members in a ring who are almost killing each other, in a fashion.
DS: I certainly hope you get along better with your dad than this movie’s son does.
JC: I do. There’s no question. Footnote is not biographical in that sense, but it does touch upon some real fears that I have as a father. I ask myself what will happen if my son turns into a filmmaker and I hate his movies? What if he reaches great success with them, and how do I deal with that?
DS: How hard was it to get into the insular, academic world of Talmudic research?
JS: It’s not too distant from my own social circle, which does have these kinds of characters in it. While I was writing Footnote, I did spend time with someone who was in the Talmud department at the Hebrew University. He was nice enough to gossip with me once a week for a few months, and reveal all the secrets to me.
DS: Footnote is a very different film from Beaufort, especially in terms of its pacing and visual flashiness. Was it your intention to do something completely different this time out?
JC: I don’t know if it was a conscious decision. It’s just the way Footnote’s story evolved and shaped itself around its own needs.
DS: The visual idea of representing footnotes is one of the movie’s most cinematic qualities. How did you come up with this motif?
JC: From a very early stage, I brought a designer onto our think-team who specialized in calligraphy. It’s a big part of the film, and I wanted someone’s input into how a footnote in a movie would look, and where would it be placed. Now on a book, we know what a footnote looks like. It’s in the margins or on the bottom of the page. But how would you put that on the “side” of a movie? What we came up with was the aesthetic of a microfiche, where our text is being burned onto these “strips” of film. While I don’t know how that exactly translates into a footnote, that visual approach gave us a freedom that I thought existed on a Talmudic text, where a writer is free to do whatever he wants.
DS: What do you think is the biggest difference between the world of academia and the real world that most people function in?
JC: It’s an interesting way to put it, but I don’t know if that describes the world of academia, especially in this film. The father, Eliezer, has his feet in the past, but his son, Uriel, is looking forward. Eliezer is obsessive about his work. And even though he’s bitter that he wasn’t recognized because he didn’t accomplish everything he wanted to, he’s very proud of his small accomplishments that he knows have more value than what other people might think. He’s a very proud person, and pretty sure he’s the only one who’s doing work of value.
DS: Yet Eliezer’s pretty unlikeable. And in the process of defending him, Uriel becomes pretty unlikeable too.
JC: They switch places. But it’s easier to be likeable when you’re recognized. You’re more gracious and generous when the world responds with acknowledgement. When you don’t get that, it’s hard to be likeable.
DS: Have you ever met any pissed-off filmmakers who were like Eliezer? Especially in their reaction to you, as you’re one of the few Israeli directors whose films have gotten released over here.
JC: I don’t see it as jealousy. People who never received the recognition they think they deserve tend to find the flaws in everyone else’s work, and I can understand that. It’s not a good place to be, but it’s understandable. And they play a role in our culture. We need bitter people who are upset when the populists are producing banal work. We need these people who are constantly finding what’s wrong with our system.
DS: I call that Facebook.
JC: Facebook is about communication. But within this film, Eliezer has given up on communication. He has no need to share his ideas with anyone. And that’s an extreme version of what we were just talking about. Eliezer has given up on influencing anyone, and he’s doing something only for himself. But there’s a lot of integrity in that. In a way, I’m envious of being so isolated that you don’t care what anyone thinks of you.
DS: When people look at Jews, they think of us as being argumentative. How do you think Footnote plays in to that?
JC: It plays perfectly. One of the highest values of the Talmud is that argument is good. If you want to crystalize an idea, the best way to do that is to argue over it. Anyone who’s dealing with drama intuitively knows that’s true. Conflict and argument move the world forward.
DS: My favorite scene is where Uriel confronts his father’s academic critics to the point of physicality.
JC: I’ve been in so many meetings that I wished would end with me getting up and punching someone in the face. And then you have an opportunity to write this scene where that actually happens. It’s so much fun.
DS: As not a particularly observant Jew, I found myself asking what relevancy the Talmud has to anyone’s life...
JC: The tension between the written word and the oral word, between the rigidness of writing and the flexibility of speaking is very relevant to my life. It’s what fuels the field of Talmudic research, because it was an oral tradition that became a written document.
DS: But the Talmud isn’t the same thing as the Bible?
JC: These characters look down at the religious angle of the Talmud because they view it as a document written by humans. It’s a chronicle of debates that really capture an entire culture, as opposed to a sacred, religious text that was created by The Divine. Talmudic researchers are dealing with the value of truth, as opposed to the value of interpretation and communication. As a filmmaker and as a modern human being, these two things are very important to me.
DS: Could you talk about how unabashedly crazy Amit Poznansky’s score is? It sounds more like the soundtrack of an outrageous American comedy.
JC: It’s music that doesn’t apologize for being music. It doesn’t try to manipulate the audience without declaring that’s what it’s doing. In that way, the score is a character in the film. There’s a Russian-German composer named Alfred Schnittke whose work we played around with in the editing room. He was an inspiration for our score, and we approached Amit because he works in that style. I think there’s something very ironic about his score. It’s serious and not serious at the same time.
DS: Recently, American colleges have sent out letters telling people they’ve been accepted, only to rescind it and tell them the whole thing was an error. Do you think there should be a legal consequence to this kind of mistake that happens to Eliezer?
JC: I can tell you another side of what you’re asking. I’m constantly under the impression that anything good that happens to me is a mistake.
DS: So if this movie does well, it’s a mistake?
JC: That was my reaction when we got nominated!
Sony Pictures Classics' 'Footnote' is released in theaters Friday, March 9, 2012.