In the field of Talmudic studies may not seem like the most compelling premise for a feature film but perhaps the greatest surprise in Joseph Cedar’s Footnote is that the basics of the story, embittered personal politics and family divides amongst Talmudic scholars, is by far the film’s greatest strength.
At the centre of the confusion and resentment that provides the film’s reasonably brisk forward narrative drive are father, Eliezer Shkolnik (Shlomo Bar-aba), and son, Uriel Shkolnik (Lior Ashkenazi); the former a washed up scholar who clings to a footnote in his past and the latter a successful and dare I say hip young Talmudic professor. Eliezer looks down on his son’s work, believing it to be lacking real substance whilst the son struggles to connect to his curmudgeon father who seems unable to connect with the world around him.
Writer/director Joseph Cedar does a reasonable job of fleshing out these two lead characters and there is even a point at which the focus switches from father to son quite effortlessly, providing the audience with a differing view of the story and at it is also at this point that the film settles into its stride a little more strongly. By this point though far too much damage has already been done by Cedar in his unnecessarily dopey stylistic choices. These are perhaps intended to signpost that Footnote is something of a black comedy rather than a po-faced scholarly drama but there is surely no chance of it being misread in this way and instead the style feels like Cedar over explaining a joke that is only mildly amusing to begin with. Throwing a lot of visual absurdity at the screen in the opening thirty minutes Cedar uses on-screen text, split screens and side wipes that add nothing and strip a lot away, making the whole venture feel more preposterous and flimsy.
The biggest culprit in Footnote’s downfall though is not the visual hooey but the bizarre aural disaster of a score that accompanies the film. Ludicrously invasive throughout the score is so misjudged that it becomes an (unintentionally) hilarious addition to some of the more off the rail sequences. Surely never before has a scene of a man walking down a narrow corridor been scored with such bombastic and excessive grandeur. Things fall apart at crucial moments too, when for instance Eliezer begins to piece together the truth behind an award at the centre of the film’s main conflict. Cut to a whip panning montage of Eliezer putting the pieces together with an increasingly alarmed look on his face, whilst the soundtrack blasts out like an epic sea battle is taking place.
Shlomo Bar-aba as Eliezer is quite wonderful though, despite the often derailing direction, as the gloomy and occasionally vitriolic patriarch and Lior Ashkenazi too impresses as the conflicted son often just trying to do the right thing. What’s so striking though is that two fine actors playing interesting characters in an oddly compelling story is not enough to save Footnote from being a messy film that does little too impress.
Footnote is playing as part of the London Film Festival on the 25th and 27th of October.