The second and third acts were superb and the characters will stick with me forever. I just needed three days to realize it.
Footnote is a film that requires a few days to digest whether it is a great film, or just a good film. As I watched the credits roll, I blinked a few times and said, “Huh,” and made myself a giant cocktail. Director Joseph Cedar, whose other Israeli made and produced films such as 2000’s award winning film Time of Favor, and 2004’s award winning film Campfire, has a great body of work in his young career. Footnote was nominated in 2011 for an Academy Award in best foreign language film but lost to A Separation from Iran. Knowing it has some awards pedigree, I held this film in high hopes to blow me away. Three days and thirty six cocktails later, I decided it was a great film. However, it is not without its faults.
The film starts out with an awards ceremony doling out a prestigious membership to the Israeli Academy of Science to a Israeli professor working with the Jerusalem Talmud. The opening shot is a long take somewhere around 5 minutes and it focuses solely on the very apparent frustration of an old man who ends up being the father of the award winner. The old man, professor Eliezer Shkolnik (Shlomo Bar Aba), resents his son, Uriel (Lior Ashkenazi), for obtaining membership before he did. This very first scene is emotionally heavy and sets the tone for the movie as you learn more and more about the relationship between Uriel and his father Eliezer and between Eliezer and the greater Israeli science community.
Right away, the faults are easy to pick out. The editing and act one narration was clunky and choppy. The film opts to tell the viewer, “A few things you should know about Eliezer Shkolnik,” in a cut away narration piece that goes back into Eliezer’s past. I disliked this scene greatly. It would have been much easier and more organic to have a character establish through dialog that Eliezer was short changed recognition of his life work by a rival researcher than to have a whooshing and stylized narration cut away that stands out as awkward. At this point in the film I was saying, “Uh oh, I’m going to need a drink to get through this.”
But as soon as I started losing faith, Footnote hit its stride with the beginning of act two with the introduction of the main conflict. And boy is that a conflict. The film went from being clunky to emotionally powerful in a single scene. I refocused into the movie and it never let me go. From that point on, the characters become dynamic and real and at times, it’s difficult not have a facial reaction to certain powerful scenes. I felt myself hang onto every scene like I was in the room with the characters. The actors play their roles like they knew them for their entire lives.
To top it off, the film employs some of the most subtle physical humor ever used in cinema. In one particular scene, Uriel meets with a dozen or so high ranking members of the Israel science community for an extremely tense meeting in a tiny closet sized room that could comfortably hold about four people. These old and weathered researchers and board members shuffle around and bump into each other as they try to make room for Uriel to sit down. I have no idea why, but I laughed out loud at the hilarious juxtaposition.
After all of the wonderful build up and great character development, we arrive at the ending. It’s like someone kicked open the doors of the production studio and trashed their cameras before they could shoot the final scene. It just ends. No resolution provided except for a slight hand touch that could be interpreted dozens of ways. Some people may have liked that ending for its artsy abruptness but I thought they could have made a great film even better by just providing the audience one more little interaction between father and son.
All faults aside, Footnote still a great movie. It could have been better if it had just stuck to the strength of its character driven story telling instead of the disjointed narration techniques and had an ending that didn’t act like a brick wall. The second and third acts were superb and the characters will stick with me forever. I just needed three days to realize it.