One of five nominees for this year’s Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, “Footnote” comes from award-winning writer-director Joseph Cedar, who at only 43 years of age, has already established an enviable track record with his work. The Israeli auteur’s latest creation -- which swept this year’s Ofirs (Israel’s Oscars) and garnered the Best Screenplay award at Cannes -- marks his second Oscar nomination, along with 2007’s “Beaufort.” The Playlist spoke with Mr. Cedar shortly before 2012’s Oscar nominees were announced.
“Footnote” centers around a father-and-son pair of Talmudic scholars who, to put it plainly, do not get along. The father, Eliezer Shkolnik, is embittered over what he perceives to be a lack of recognition for his decades of devoted and painstaking research, while his middle-aged son, Uriel, enjoys celebrity and awards among their scholarly circle. In the film’s pivotal development, Eliezer believes he’s received his due by being nominated for the vaunted Israel Prize -- until Uriel learns that there has been a mix-up: the prize was actually meant for him. Old conflicts and grievances come to the surface, and the family’s tense relationships reach a boiling point, as decisions are made about who should get the award.
Commenting on this small, clever film’s setting in an insular, scholarly community, Cedar admits that, when he made it, he was concerned about the movie’s crossover potential. The subject is now moot thanks to the Oscar nod. “But,” he said, harkening back to the adage that artists should describe what they know, “it's a reflection of the world that I live in.”
I wasn’t entirely clear on what exactly the Talmud was until I researched it post-screening. Turns out, I’d had it confused with the Torah. The Talmud is the supreme Jewish law book and describes how rules listed in the Torah (Judaism’s most important text, made up of parts of the Bible and 613 spiritual commandments, or “mitzvot”) should be applied to various circumstances in actual life. Cedar describes the Talmud as a vast, human document that attempts to delve into all areas of life. “It’s remarkable how relevant it’s stayed. One of its highest values is argument, and the tension between generations with conflicting ideas. The film very closely reflects that value, that argument is a necessary force for progress in the world,” he said. While I observed that the scholars’ at-times contemptible behavior -- lying, vindictiveness, even violence -- appears to conflict with the Talmud’s ethical teachings, Cedar framed the characters’ roles in an accessible way: “[They] have a personal dilemma to solve, that has ethical sides to it, but mostly has to do with their personalities and flaws and how they can’t overcome them.”
On making Israeli Talmudic scholars relatable to audiences of varying stripes.
Let’s face it: many moviegoers will not expect to find a film about religious scholars to be entertaining, on the assumption that they won’t relate to characters steeped in religious learning. Cedar’s solution is to form the core of the story around the characters’ humanity, instead of building their portrayals around ethnic, cultural or religious identities. “I have a real resistance to exotic portrayal of small groups that seem different from mainstream filmgoers; it feels a little exploitive. Whether it’s a tribe in Africa or a group of Muslim women or Orthodox Jews, whenever their characterization is reliant on that kind of ethnic identity, I feel that the story is not really touching what it should touch.” Good stories, Cedar explains, are about people. Everything else obscures motivations that can be understood by anyone.
Cedar pointed out that, contrary to what we may assume, Talmudic scholarship is an academic, not purely religious, commitment. “The Talmud is considered a sacred text for religious people. These scholars spend their lives uncovering [its] mistakes. It’s an academic, secular approach to a religious text. And in that sense, these characters -- they may have some relationship with a religious lifestyle -- but their professional world is almost anti-religious.”
On the movie’s frequent, and frequently unexpected, flashes of whimsy, which serve as Cedar’s own footnotes to the film.
From a spritely score to quick and clever editing and a dreamlike build-up to the film’s climactic awards ceremony, visual and musical interludes are inserted throughout that prevent “Footnote” from being dragged down by the characters’ backbiting and negativity.
Cedar credits Talmudic scholars’ footnotes as his unexpected inspiration: he considers the practice of adding footnotes to formal texts is a type of artistic freedom. “I’ve always felt frustrated with the rigidness of my work. All the films I’ve made, [I] end up with a pile of ideas that I just didn't know how to deliver to my audience” -- a constraint that has come from his need to maintain a story’s chronology or for stylistic consistency and integrity, that resulted in him scrapping many of the ideas that developed as he wrote.
Then he began reading the academic texts, with their dry, almost mathematical-sounding analyses -- and one element in particular stood out. “A standard page would have a line or two of primary text -- and then a whole page of footnotes, [where] they can go wild. Stylistically, they can allow descriptions they would [otherwise] never use. It's a way to release some steam, to just… gossip.” Which gave him his basic inspiration for the story: “Why don't I have that freedom to just let loose, with all my ideas that I want my audience to have? So we created these sequences of ‘footnotes’ that have no stylistic consistency and allowed me and our team to go wild with whatever we thought would work, and help the audience appreciate the story.”
“The idea of a footnote is really attractive to me. A footnote doesn't take itself too seriously. It doesn't draw too much attention. It’s free. It’s not pretentious. And in relation to [Eliezer], there’s something tragic to it -- no one wants to be a footnote,” the direct explains.
Clearly, Joseph Cedar should have no such concerns about his own work. “Footnote” opens in select theaters today.