Family Politics

Family Politics

How professional rivalry between a father and son can wither relationships,is at the heart of an acclaimed Israeli film

The world is full of unsung academics who toil all their lives in an obsessive quest for knowledge—and a reputation-making breakthrough in their chosen field—only to end up a footnote in someone else’s brilliant career.

Israel’s contender for this year’s foreign-language Academy Award was Joseph Cedar’s Footnote,a tragicomic tale of rival father-and-son Jewish scholars in the Talmud department of Hebrew University in Jerusalem. The film was a box-office hit in Israel,winning that country’s version of an Oscar for best picture,and best screenplay at the Cannes Film Festival. “Israeli films have always struggled to find their connection to the larger Israel,” said Cedar,the film’s writer and director. “I come from a yeshiva background,so I studied the Talmud from a religious angle most of my life. No other culture has created a document so vast and so detailed that continues to be relevant. This film touches something that has to do with our identity.”

Born in New York,Cedar moved to Israel with his family in 1973,when he was 5,but held onto his pitch-perfect English. Footnote is his fourth film. His previous movie,Beaufort,about Israeli soldiers in southern Lebanon,was also an Oscar finalist.

The idea for Footnote struck when Cedar received a call announcing that he had won an award that he mistakenly believed was meant for his father,Howard Cedar,a biochemist who teaches at Hebrew University and is a winner of the Israel Prize,his country’s highest honour. In the film,a misunderstanding over which member of the family has been awarded the Israel Prize pits father against son.


“Awards motivate,and they raise the bar,” Cedar said. “There’s an inherent contradiction. You’re proud of your achievement; you’re ashamed that you needed it. And I think it’s true for anyone standing on that podium. Some of them have never published anything because they’re so terrified of making a mistake. There are real people that live in this tension that is unbearable,but it’s also a competitiveness that never gives them any satisfaction or fulfillment.”

Eliezer Shkolnik (played by Shlomo Bar Aba) is a taciturn and long-frustrated philologist who analyses Talmudic manuscripts in exacting detail.

A rising star with a gift for schmooze,his son,Uriel (Lior Ashkenazi),writes bold,popular theoretical books,eclipsing Eliezer in honours and accolades,becoming a nemesis who represents a new world order that Eliezer loathes. “The tradition of fierce argument over words,the tension of generations,the tension between what is oral and what is written,these are all very basic things that drive the Talmud,” Cedar said. “That’s what this film is about.”

Bar Aba,a household name in Israel who nonetheless hadn’t been in a film in 24 years,said by phone from Israel that he was hardly an obvious choice for the role of Eliezer,having skipped his Talmud classes in high school. “When I invited my psychologist to see me onstage,she said I acted like a Jew with Germans aiming a gun at my head,telling me the second I stopped being funny,they would shoot,” Bar Aba said.

Meanwhile Ashkenazi didn’t seem to break a sweat. “Lior is a real leading man,he’s Cary Grant,” Cedar said. After a screening of the film in Israel a philologist from the Talmud department presented Cedar with a challenge: “He said,‘I noticed I’m No. 4 in the credits,and it’s not alphabetical,so it must be by importance,and I just want to know,why is this guy more important than I am?”’ Cedar recalled. “So I said,‘You know there’s a third option: It can just be random.’ And his answer was,‘Nothing is random.’ That’s how these people feel.’’