Prize Fighters: Joseph Cedar’s Footnote

Footnote is a movie about Talmudic scholars that hands the spectator a Talmudic riddle. Does the parent sacrifice for the child or the child for the parent? Is family more important than truth?

Upon entering the little room, Uriel learns that Eliezer Shkolnick has fallen victim to precisely the sort of transcription error that his life was devoted to correcting. The letter of announcement went to the wrong Shkolnik. The prize was not intended for Eliezer. According to the unanimous decision of a committee headed by none other than the dread Yehuda Grossman, the prize was intended for Uriel. The committee is there, along with a lawyer, and a representative from the ministry. Shock gives way to disputation. Uriel refuses to strip his father of the award. Grossman threatens to resign: “You have no right to pass this on to your father!”

Uriel’s beard is turning gray; Grossman has developed wrinkles on his wrinkles. Words become ballistic, recalling the earlier scenes of Uriel working out his aggression playing squash with a colleague. Morality turns personal (“I think you hate my father!!” “What I can reveal about your father, no son should know!!!”) and ultimately physical. It’s a great sequence—as claustrophobic as the stateroom riff in the Marx Brothers’ A Night at the Opera. (How did Cedar squeeze himself, his camera, and crew into that space?) Eventually, however, Uriel and Grossman make a deal. Eliezer will get the prize but Uriel shall forever exclude himself from future consideration—what’s more, he must write the judge’s statement.

Uriel is named for an angel, but no good deed goes unpunished. For now we witness “The Revenge of Professor Shkolnik.” Even as the son struggles with the correct wording for the statement (coming to terms with reality of his father’s single project and few publications) a pretty young journalist (Yuval Scharf) arrives to interview the award-winning professor. To her surprise, recognition has not made him magnanimous. On the contrary. He feels duty-bound to badmouth the work of previous Israel Prize winners as “trivial and not scientific” and hopes that his award will mark a return to the old standards of excellence. Then, his gall overflowing, he goes even further in attacking fashionable, phony Talmudic pseudo-scholarship of the day.

The alert journalist realizes that Professor Shkolnik is criticizing his own son. Skillfully she draws him out, eliciting the statement that will be prominently featured in her article: “Uriel excels at what he does but I wouldn’t call it Talmudic research.” Folding laundry in the next room, his wife overhears and is aghast. How many times has she heard the old man rant? But now! And, as for Uriel … Suffice to say that sins of the father are visited on the son and the grandson. After reading the article, furious Uriel lays a vicious trip on his own teenage boy.

It’s theater and in his single best joke, Cedar has the Shkolniks attending a performance of that 20th-century Jewish classic, Fiddler on the Roof. Tevye drags his wagon on stage, complaining that he is not just the driver but the horse—then comes out again to kvetch about his daughter’s dowry. Uriel and Eliezer are seated at opposite ends of the family group. Yehudit whispers to Uriel to give his father a chance to apologize. Uriel knows that will never happen and so he takes his own revenge and burdens his mother with the truth about the award: “No one knows except you.”

Eliezer may be happily humming “Tradition” on the way home in Uriel’s overcrowded car, but Cedar is not yet through. Thanks to the scholar’s memory for word patterns and formidable research skills, Eliezer will figure out that Uriel wrote the award statement and deduce that he had been the award’s intended recipient. Everything now in place, Footnote’s almost wordless last 15 minutes are exquisitely choreographed as, for the third time, the Shkolniks attend a public ceremony en famille. This event, however, is a mirror image of the first. Now everyone appears to be miserable, except perhaps Eliezer. The ceremony begins, but, just before the playing of “Hatikva,” the movie ends. Behind me, an anguished cry: “That’s it? That can’t be it!”

Cedar has left it to us to discuss amongst ourselves. At least, that’s how it was at the Westchester Cinema Club. It was pointed out that Shkolnik fils ceded the moral high ground when he whispered the truth mid-Fiddler to his mother, leaving her with an impossible choice between husband and son; it was further observed that Shkolnik père lost his authority when, through the power of his intellect, he discovered the truth and said nothing. Some noted that the women Dikla and Yehudit are clearly the movie’s most intelligent and empathetic characters and pointed out that women were traditionally banned from studying the Talmud.

One man angrily declared that Eliezer was an unbelievable character. A father would never disdain such nakhes and proof of filial loyalty. He would take pride in it and not so “sacrifice” his son. (“Ah ha,” I heard someone joke.) Others, more conversant with scripture, saw a similarity to the Talmudic tale of Kamsa and Bar Kamsa, wherein a servant’s clerical error results in an unintended banquet invitation—rather than friend Kamsa, enemy Bar Kamsa shows up for the feast and, despite his three offers to pay an increasingly large portion of the expenses, is physically ejected by the irate host—thus setting off a chain of events resulting in the destruction of the Second Temple.

Might Cedar have been issuing a similar warning about the destructive battles between religious right and secular left that even now divide Israel? some wondered. Perhaps his movie is a commentary on this midrash, suggesting that, as Eliezer believes, the truth of history is found in its footnotes. Or perhaps, Footnote has another moral lesson: The mistake that, however honest, remains unacknowledged can bring the Temple itself crashing down on our heads.