- - Thursday, March 22, 2012

Director Joseph Cedar brings a droll touch to “Footnote,” a story of family rivalry set in the competitive and occasionally vitriolic world of Talmudic studies in Israeli academe.

Nominated for an Academy Award for best foreign language film, “Footnote” takes shape as an ethical quandary pitting the values of family and loyalty against devotion to the objective truth. This isn’t some dry philosophical treatise, however, but a blisteringly satirical and surprisingly gripping dive into an obscure academic subculture. (Despite its frequent allusions to contemporary and early Talmudic scholarship, “Footnote” can be enjoyed by those with near-total ignorance of its ostensible subject.)

Eliezer Shkolnik (Shlomo Bar-Aba) is a marginalized figure in the world of Talmudic study. Though a meticulous and perfectionist scholar, his work has not propelled him to a position of influence in his field. Once he was on the verge of revolutionizing Talmudic scholarship — hypothesizing the existence of an alternative manuscript version of the Jerusalem Talmud, based on his close reading of many translations. But the lucky discovery of the actual manuscript by his rival Grossman (Micah Lewensohn) rendered his arguments moot. Eliezer finds professional solace in an obscure source — a single mention in a footnote in a work by his influential mentor.

In contrast, his son Uriel Shkolnik (Lior Ashkenazi) goes from strength to strength. The film opens with Uriel’s induction into an important academic society to which his father does not belong. As Uriel gives his acceptance speech, the camera dwells on Eliezer, who is clearly uncomfortable playing the role of cheerleader to his son’s success. It isn’t just that Eliezer devalues his son’s work — though he views it as dangerously creative and broadly interpretive — he views his son’s popularity and his own isolation as evidence of a wider intellectual and social decline.

The bureaucratic mishap that drives the plot ought to be kept as a surprise for moviegoers. Suffice it to say that the event plays to the worst pent-up tendencies in father and son. Eliezer’s vanity and resentment erode his standards for truth — and therefore his very self. Uriel is revealed as a supercilious toady and an appeaser even as he stands up for his father’s honor.

All of this, it must be said, is done with a light touch. Some of the back story is revealed in split-screen flashbacks narrated by peripheral characters in a way that is unobtrusive and neatly pushes the story along. Mr. Cedar excels in finding visual ways to express Eliezer’s marginality, and Mr. Bar-Aba is superb at revealing Eliezer’s brooding discontent.

★★★½

TITLE: “Footnote” (in Hebrew with English subtitles)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Joseph Cedar

RATING: PG

RUNNING TIME: 103 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS