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Review: Oscar-nominated “Footnote” smartly follows a father-son relationship

Shlomo Bar-Aba is the phantom of the library archives.
Shlomo Bar-Aba is the phantom of the library archives.

A wise, witty character study about father-son competition and the intricacies of scholarly politics, “Footnote” kicks off with a skittery musical score that seems more suitable for an espionage thriller. That’s partly a joke and partly appropriate because, by its end, the movie provokes surprising suspense built on, of all things, the deployment of a single word across a handful of academic publications.

A nominee for the best foreign film Oscar, “Footnote” introduces us to two very different men who just happen to share the same genes. The gnomic, unsmiling Eliezer Shkolnik (Shlomo Bar-Aba) has spent his life following the same routine every day, trudging by foot from his home to Hebrew University. There, he toils over the minutiae of ancient Talmudic texts, examining them for any variations. He’s like a phantom haunting the library stacks.

By contrast in almost every way, except that he works at the same university, son Uriel Shkolnik (Lior Ashkenazi) is a sort of bookish superstar, a glad-hander who pops up on the lecture circuit all across Israel. As a colleague puts it, “He expects a kind of constant mild flattery.” Eliezer thinks Uriel is a peacock. Uriel thinks Eliezer is a dinosaur.

Given the uneasy, provisional détente that exists between the two men, imagine what happens when one of them is awarded the exalted Israel Prize for his work. Will the winner take this validation as a chance to be magnanimous, or will he take a pettier road? And on top of all that, what if the awards committee has made the blunder of all blunders, accidentally giving the prize to the wrong Shkolnik? And now its members want to rectify their mistake, even at the risk of destroying any chance that father and son can be in the same room together.

“Footnote” explores this premise with dry, wry precision. It’s a fascinating psychological study as we watch these two men make sometimes noble, sometimes childish decisions. And if you’re worried that the world of academia sounds like a sterile location for fertile drama, you’d be surprised. In the hallways of higher education, the politics can be as coldly bloodthirsty as anything imagined by William Shakespeare.

Though it’s not as morally complex as the recent “A Separation” (which won the Oscar), “Footnote” is the rare and welcome sort of movie that makes you think. In fact — and some might grumble about this — it comes to a slightly abrupt end, just before a scene in which the tensions (and respect) between father and son might be resolved. I think it’s a savvy choice. By not dramatizing that scene, the film leaves the viewer to decide, based on the emotional evidence laid out before us, just what the future holds for these two deeply flawed but decent men.

“Footnote.” Starring Lior Ashkenazi and Shlomo Bar-Aba. Written and directed by Joseph Cedar. In Hebrew with subtitles. Rated PG. 103 minutes. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.

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