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Footnote: A delicate tale of father-son rivalry

Shlomo Bar Aba in a scene from "Footnote"

Ren Mendelson/Sony Pictures Classics

3 out of 4 stars


Footnote definitely earns that title. It's a wryly observed little picture that plays like an anecdote deliberately separated from some larger text that's hinted at yet never fully divulged.

Then again, this being a father-and-son tale, maybe that's entirely appropriate. After all, in what other relationship do the minor tensions so frequently obscure the main story?

Delicately crafted by writer-director Joseph Cedar, and shortlisted by Oscar in the best foreign-language film category last month, the movie opens with the camera fixed for long minutes on an even longer face.

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It belongs to Eliezer (Shlomo Bar Aba), who's seated in an auditorium listening to his son Uriel making a speech onstage and thanking him. Seems they're both Talmudic scholars tenured at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. The audience, a gathering of like-minded academics, is receiving the speech well. Uriel (Lior Ashkenazi) is clearly a charmer, a slick speaker, and papa should be proud. But his expressionless mug suggests otherwise.

In quick pencil strokes, sometimes comic in slant, Cedar sketches out the source of their tension. Rigidly devoted to verifying the accuracy of the sacred text, Dad is a lifelong plodder in his field of study – his whole career has been a grey slog through every syllable.

By contrast, the son is a cheery populist who breezily cranks out books that skip over the minutiae to paint the big picture. Guess whose lectures are better attended and whom the media love to call upon?

Since they all live under the same roof, Cedar offers tiny glimpses of the family dynamic – Eliezer and his aged, plump wife divided by separate bedrooms and much silence; Uriel and his spouse arguing over his treatment of their listless teenage son. Another generation gap in the making.

The glimpses continue outside. One day on campus, Uriel is astonished to see his usually dour dad sharing a bench and animated conversation with an attractive grey-haired woman. Like us, he'd love to know that bigger story. Like us, he never does – many things, especially in families, must remain unknown.

The plot quickens with a phone call. After decades of labouring in obscurity, Eliezer is informed that he's won the prestigious Israel Prize. For once, he gets the accolades, and his vanity is tweaked, along with a bellyful of old resentments.

As for Uriel, a genuinely decent guy, he's happy for his father's late success, at least until the second-act twist. Can't spoil it, but everything that follows turns on this development, all the spilled secrets and the kind lies.

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Throughout, the ensemble cast is superb, and the dual portrait of domestic and academic life, each with its rivalries and jealousies and betrayals and loyalties, is crisply etched. So is the peek at a modern Israel that emerges from the corners of the frame – details like the daily interaction, amiable or not, with the uniformed guards who turn every building entrance into an airport security lineup.

All these shards, these small addenda, are interesting or amusing or both. But the problem with a piece so delicate is that it can also seem slight, and Cedar sometimes falls prey to that danger. Just as remarks are not literature, observations are not movies. Love the footnote, but I do miss the text.


  • Directed and written by Joseph Cedar
  • Starring Shlomo Bar Aba and Lior Ashkenazi
  • Classification: PG
  • 3 stars
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About the Author
Film critic

Rick Groen is a film critic for The Globe and Mail. More

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