Thursday, May 24, 2012

FOOTNOTE: What Would You Do?


FOOTNOTE, the Israeli film which won the award for best screenplay at the Cannes Film Festival and was nominated for an Oscar as Best Foreign Film at this year’s Academy Awards, is a film which explores the complex and emotionally charged dynamics of families of every kind:  from three generations of a nuclear family to the “families” we create in our work place. 

Anyone who’s ever worked in a university anywhere in the world will recognize the claustrophobic and competitive environment of academic life, where departmental congeniality thinly masks the cut-throat rivalry, jealousy and betrayal in its family of coworkers.

In the 1988 film DOA (Dead On Arrival), the main character, Professor Dexter Cornell (played by Dennis Quaid) has been fatally poisoned, and spends the remaining 3 days of his life trying to find his killer; finally, he learns that he was murdered by a colleague who wanted his tenure!

FOOTNOTE is suspenseful, but not as heavy-handed as DOA — in fact, it’s highly satirical and sometimes, laugh-out-loud funny! — but nevertheless, it precisely captures that politically charged, egotistical world of academia.  Here, the Talmudic Studies department at Hebrew University in Jerusalem is the “family” of professors who carp at each other, who steal ideas from one another, who compete for fame and importance.  Even being mentioned as a “footnote” in a work by a respected scholar is cause for pride and is nurtured like a fetish.

The tightly woven, tension-laden world of the Talmudic scholars is mirrored in the background picture the film gives of modern day Israel, where so much of daily life is subject to interactions with security agents; where simply going into and out of a public building like a library requires patience and restraint — and ideally, a sense of humor!

Apart from those security details, the dilemmas faced in FOOTNOTE are familiar ones; the film is also a keenly observed portrait of both domestic and academic life.  And in this story, the two lives — the two families — are intricately intertwined. 

Father Eliezer Shkolnik and his son, Uriel, are both Talmudic scholars at Hebrew University.  But Eliezer is a self-righteous man, humorless and married to old methods and superseded studies.  He has isolated himself from most of his colleagues and from his family as well; and he’s locked into a bitter disappointment over lack of recognition by anything greater than one small “footnote” in another scholar’s work.

By contrast, his son Uriel is an academic star.  Charismatic and well-liked, he is a part of the world; he plays racket ball, goes to concerts, and wins the kinds of accolades and honors that have eluded his father.

Talk about a generation gap!  Uriel knows how to play the game of life — and the academic game! — while his father does not.

But Uriel feels some guilt about this, and over and over again, he tries to impress and please his father.  Of course, this is an almost impossible task, as his father disparages all those who are welcomed by the establishment that has ignored him.  That Uriel is welcomed into that world angers, disappoints and depresses his father further; he is jealous and anxious to belittle his son’s work. 

Eliezer is finally recognized by being awarded the most important academic prize in Israel.  This totally unexpected prize thrills his son and the rest of his family, and Eliezer is forced to welcome the accolades of those he’d previously scorned.

In a riveting comic but tense scene set in a tiny, crowded and almost suffocating room at the university, Uriel is informed by the members of the awards committee that the award was meant for him and mistakenly given to his father; moreover, it is left for Uriel to tell his father of that decision, to deliver that blow.

These are, indeed, ethical and personal dilemmas. 

What would you do? 

If you were the father, would you accept the award that was bestowed by those whom you do not respect and have criticized for years?  Would you disparage your son and his accomplishments?  Would you be angry that your son, and not you, received that prestigious award?  Or would you embrace your son and feel exalted by his success?

What would you do?

If you were the son, would you give up your prize for your father?  Would you sacrifice the truth for him despite his disloyalty to you?  Or would you claim the prize that was rightfully yours?  Would you be pleased to take your father’s joy from him?  Would you be happy to finally exact retribution for your father’s betrayal and lack of generosity toward you?

What would you do?

In this fine film, you sit on the edge of your seat waiting for the answers to these questions – if, indeed, there are clear-cut answers to be had.

And all the while, you wonder:

What would you do…?

Love, honor, trust, truth, loyalty, grace; and rivalry, anger, frustration, loathing, jealousy, betrayal:  all the stuff of family is portrayed here. Father and son are each tested; the academic and domestic families are tested:  and it is heartbreaking to see....

But regardless of what they do to one another, one thing remains a given throughout the film:  these two men are bound to each other.  Forever.
Whatever else we can say of them, families hold within them a link between the generations and a hope for the future.  And of course, nothing does that quite so well as the arrival of a new baby.  
Last month I wrote of the birth of  my first grand-baby, Hannah Selma.  Now I happily write of the newest edition to my family:  a beautiful and quite lovely little boy named Leo Nathan.
One child had a girl and the other a boy;  but I have both a girl and a boy:  how lucky is that?
My family is growing and we are moving into the future together....
Leo Nathan -- and I made this blanket, too!

Nana with Leo and Hannah