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Joseph Cedar, the writer-director of Footnote, the Israeli submission to the Oscar foreign-film category this year, has said that his film’s story “qualifies as a tragedy, as most father-son stories do.” This bleak prognosis of parent-child relations notwithstanding, Footnote has a decidedly tragic cast. But it remains a comedy through much of its length. A tragicomedic movie is scarcely run-of-the-mill fare in cinema, and Cedar impressively manages to keep his film’s momentum and its involuted texture evolving until, at its very last image, it suddenly stops on a note of possible bitter irony. Interpretation is semi-open here.

Eliezer Shkolnik (Schlomo Bar-Aba) is a Talmudic scholar in Jerusalem. So is his celebrated son, Uriel (Lior Ashkenazi). Uriel’s academic celebrity is a burr under his father’s saddle. The older man begrudges it and will eventually characterize his son’s work as anthropologically chic, superficial and unscientific. There’s a rather witty academic joke at the heart of the film and its title. Eliezer had spent years attempting to reconcile variant texts of the Jerusalem Talmud—a founding religious commentary on Judaism—and was on his way to establishing an authoritative edition when a rival virtually stumbled on an original text hidden in an Italian monastery, rendering all Eliezer’s work unnecessary. He has been, in a sense, relegated to a footnote in an old teacher’s book.

Footnote is eruditely elevated and a little remote, but it is by no means placid or dry: Cedar has created a mashup of rapid-fire editing, jump cuts, swish cuts, animation, a little knock-about humor and visual jokes. The complex tone wavers through near-farce, satirical notes, domestic drama—on to its sobering conclusion. Like the professors’scholarly emphases, the subject matter of Footnote can seem abstractly petty, but there’s a pessimistic, somehow traditionally Jewish skepticism and gloomy wit threading through it. It’s less remote than it may sound.

Watch the trailer for Footnote

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