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Unseemingly academia

Candid, mirthful Footnote frolics in the mud of scholarly infighting

By Philip Martin

This article was published May 11, 2012 at 1:56 a.m.

patrick-miller-and-kerri-kremer

Patrick Miller and Kerri Kremer

— In 1917, the German economist and sociologist Max Weber delivered a lecture on “Science as a Vocation,” in which he weighed the pros and cons of life as an academic scientist. To his mind, scientists were limited to providing explanations and justifications, but that it was up to philosophers to explain why things mattered. And that while an artist might find fulfillment in his work, it was the scientists’ lot to have his work surpassed by others.

Yet, Weber concluded that the pursuit of science was a worthwhile calling — provided the wannabe’s soul could withstand the vicissitudes of the academy.

“Academic careers are then sorely beset by chance,” Weber said. “When a young scientist or scholar comes to seek advice ... the responsibility which one assumes in advising him is heavy indeed ... one naturally tells him: lasciate ogni speranza [a line from Dante’s Inferno that translates “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here”]. ... Do you think that, year after year, you will be able to stand to see one mediocrity after another promoted over you, and still not become embittered and dejected? Of course, the answer is always: ‘Naturally, I live only for my calling.’ But only in a very few cases have I found them able to undergo it without suffering spiritual damage.”

Weber’s musings seem particularly on point in Israeli writer-director Joseph Cedar’s Footnote, a poignant movie about two Talmudic scholars, an emotionally estranged father and son, that engages seriously with some knotty questions — familial debt, gratitude and authenticity — while, as unlikely as it sounds, may be the funniest movie I’ve seen this year.

Eliezer Shkolnik (Shlomo Bar-Aba), the father, is a detail- oriented philologist, a traditionalist whose methods are strictly scientific. He combs through ancient texts on Jewish law looking for letters transposed by copyists and other minutiae — for forensic evidence of how the law has evolved and mutated. He spent 30 years reconstructing a lost book only to have his work surpassed by his rival, Grossman (Micha Lewensohn) who lucked into finding an intact copy of the work and rushed it into print before Eliezer was able to publish his findings.

So Eliezer toils in obscurity, books piled high in his carrel desk, headphones on to block out the distracting hum of the world. His singular mark on his discipline is a grateful mention in a footnote in an important work by his revered mentor. (Who was also Grossman’s mentor, and who, we come to understand, never gave Grossman a similar stroke.)

But Eliezer is a serious man who craves neither acclaim nor awards. In fact, after years of watching the Israel Prize, his country’s top honor, go to a string of mediocrities — such as the poseur Grossman, who has now ascended to the chair of the selection committee — he has decided the system is corrupt. He doesn’t want to be associated with the sort of clowns they celebrate.

If Eliezer is the hard scientist, limiting his commentary to what is observable and measurable, his son Uriel (Lior Ashkenazi) is the polar opposite. While he’s also a Talmudic scholar, working in the same department at the same university as his father, he’s a popularizer, a semi-celebrity with a yard of published books who’s much in demand for public lectures. If his father is a scientist, Uriel is an artist — given to breezy, impressionistic theorizing on the “meaning” of the texts.

Eliezer dismisses his son’s work as speculative, fanciful nonsense. Uriel, were he not such a dutiful son, might admit that his father is a bit of a drudge.

Yet, when Eliezer is suddenly announced as the recipient of the Israel Prize, both father and son have to adjust their thinking. Maybe the hypocrites have reformed, maybe the tortoise has finally overcome the meretricious hares with whom he started out?

Cedar (whose previous film was the grim Beaufort) has succeeded in crafting a drama about the internecine skirmishes — actual and metaphoric — fought between fathers and sons that might fairly be called Shakespearean. And he does it in a highly entertaining, nearly flashy manner that employs some delightfully upbeat music (courtesy of Amit Poznansky) combined with visual flourishes, graphics and framings that tease thriller conventions.

While the subject matter may seem esoteric, the beautifully acted Footnote is a wonderfully accessible film that offsets serious inquiry with moments of warm, naturalistic comedy that spring from the everyday awkwardness of people who take themselves just a touch too seriously. Ultimately humane, but hardly sappy, it embodies the famous aphorism attributed to Columbia University political science professor Wallace Sayre: “Academic politics is the most vicious and bitter form of politics, because the stakes are so low.”

Footnote

90 Cast: Shlomo Bar-Aba, Lior Ashkenazi, Micha Lewensohn Director: Joseph Cedar Rating: PG, for thematic elements, brief nudity and language Running time: 103 minutes

In Hebrew with English subtitles

MovieStyle, Pages 35 on 05/11/2012

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