By the Book

A father and son's strained relationship gets a test

Two men sit side by side in the front row of a throng of people, listening to the introduction of Professor Shkolnik, who is being accepted into the National Israel Academy of Sciences in the Israeli drama Footnote. The younger man is in a suit, bearded and bespectacled, his expression soft and warm. The other sits glaring at the floor, dressed in a well-worn sweater with wild, uncombed hair.

Both, it just so happens, are Professor Shkolnik; it's the former who's being honored this evening. It turns out father Eliezer (Shlomo Bar-Aba) and son Uriel (Lior Ashkenazi) have devoted their lives to the Talmud, but it's the son who earns all the recognition.

Eliezer studies the ancient Jewish text like a scientist, meticulously gathering information and cataloging his findings. The result of all his hard work is a single footnote in a book called Introduction to Text Versions of Talmudic Literature. Uriel, on the other hand, is a pop scholar, writing books about "marital relations in the Talmudic era" and deftly navigating the political waters of academia.

When an administrative error grants Eliezer the Israel Prize — an award he's coveted his entire career — it comes to Uriel's attention that he was actually the intended recipient of the honor, leaving him to wonder whether the revelation will destroy the already tenuous relationship with his father.

The cinematic tricks writer-director Joseph Cedar tosses around throughout Footnote could easily come off as irritating or distracting, but the faux-documentary-style exposition and dramatic animated text he slips in develop the story. Making an entertaining movie about research is no easy task, but Cedar pulls it off without pulling any fast ones. Nothing feels too flashy or unnecessary, thanks to the film's knack for fluidly blending quick cuts with long, thoughtful shots.

Credit also goes to the performances, which are humorous, complex, and tortured. Bar-Aba's Eliezer is flustered, cruel, and frustrated by his humble fate, but he's genuinely funny too. As he sits in his office, with bright yellow heavy-duty headphones over his ears to cut out unwanted distractions, his rapid-fire blinks and perpetual scowl earn laughs without sacrificing his character's integrity.

And when the haughty academic Uriel finds himself traipsing across campus in a fencing uniform, it could go for the eye-rolling quirkiness that's plagued so many movies over the past decade, but the humor here is more subtle and less forced.

At times stylized, Footnote, in the end, remains true to itself and to its characters. Watching the story unfold is certainly entertaining, but it's also occasionally excruciating — but in a good way, like when Uriel struggles with breaking the news to his father that the coveted Israel Prize doesn't actually belong to him. Like Eliezer, the movie deserves praise. Unlike Uriel, it's worthy of every moment it spends in the limelight.