Judaism is unique among the Abrahamic faith traditions in giving pride of place to the study of sacred texts, even within the liturgy. The traditional morning service includes both the blessing for study of Torah and passages from the Talmud relating to the sacrifices offered in the Temple a couple of millennia ago.
So it’s wonderfully appropriate that Joseph Cedar’s new film, “Footnote,” which opens on March 9, in not only a film about Jewish text study but also a film filled with texts. With newspapers, letters and handwritten notes, not to mention scholarly treatises, sacred texts and even a rendering for a production of “Fiddler on the Roof” with text across the stage — the film is filled with Hebrew letters, and its drama and comedy are both rooted in the peculiarities of the Hebrew language.
The story is deceptively simple. The Education Ministry has decided to bestow the Israel Prize on the popular Talmud scholar Uriel Shkolnik (Lior Ashkenazi), but accidentally calls his father Eliezer (Shlomo Bar Aba) to tell him he has won the award. Since Eliezer is also an active figure in Talmud studies, albeit an utterly neglected one whose specialty is abstruse and arcane, he seems to be delighted, but his barely concealed rivalry with his more successful offspring will now come bubbling to the surface with painful results for the entire family.
“Footnote” is a film that is downright drunk on words. Cedar fills his widescreen frames with print of all sorts, taking gleeful advantage of the fact that Modern Hebrew, biblical Hebrew, Mishnaic Hebrew and Aramaic look pretty much alike to the average moviegoer. Text is text is text, as that renegade Jew Gertrude Stein might have said.
All of this makes perfect sense for a film in which disputes over texts and their reading and reconstruction are matters of life and death. Cedar creates a congested world of academic infighting and literal claustrophobia in which Eliezer is as trapped inside his own consciousness and pent-up resentments and smoldering rage as the soldiers in Cedar’s 2007 war film “Beaufort” are within the walls of that film’s eponymous fortress.
Surprisingly, “Footnote” shares with “Beaufort” a bleakly absurdist vision of a world torn by violence. Where the absurdism of the earlier film was tragic and the violence your garden-variety sudden-death-by-lethal-projectiles, in “Footnote” the insanity may be more literal, although also much funnier. But the violence, while no less appalling, is rather more psychological than physical. The worst overt acts in “Footnote” lead to nothing more than a bloody nose and a smashed TV remote, but the mental and emotional cruelties multiply and spread like a plague bacillus.
In short, “Footnote” is a film about words as objects and weapons, and Eliezer is at once both the principle practitioner and primary victim. Cedar hints at this dual status from the film’s very first shot, a two-shot of the man in complete stasis on the left side of the screen balanced on the right side by an empty ladder.
Although he will later insist that he is a philologist, he is only a “lover of words” professionally; at no point in the film will we see him engaged in an actual exchange with another human being. When he is interviewed by a journalist, the result is not a conversation but confrontation, with Eliezer merely using the reporter as a microphone through which he can publicly attack his son. It is surely no accident that when he wants to work, Eliezer dons a pair of yellow noise suppressors; they look like headphones but they convey nothing but silence. And as the film descends into its final movement, Eliezer becomes increasingly mute, lost in a mystifying fog of disconnected signifiers that are as devoid of real meaning as the obscure research that has been his life’s work.
The irony is that as the film progresses, Uriel, the humanist proponent of Talmud-study-for-all, becomes as cruel in his dealings with the humans he supposedly values as his father is with the words he purportedly loves.
Intriguingly, Cedar has cast his protagonists with two superb actors working severely against type. Ashkenazi, the archetypal romantic lead, is used her as a bear-like passive-aggressive, a man who hates confrontation and who acts mainly by inaction. Bar Aba is a mainstay of Israeli TV comedy, frequently compared to Robin Williams for his manic, perpetual-motion improvisations, but in “Footnote” he is a man who seethes in silence, a semi-dormant volcano of ill-concealed anger. Much of the brilliance of “Footnote” resides in the way in which Cedar develops the parallels of their discomforts, for broad laughs in the film’s first half, for growing unease in the second.
“Footnote” is a densely layered work that, with its complex narrative structure and intricate games with point-of-view, practically demands more than one viewing. Happily, it also rewards them.
“Footnote,” Joseph Cedar’s Oscar-nominated film, opens Friday, March 9 at the Angelika Film Center (West Houston and Mercer Streets).