He'arat Shulayim (Footnote)
directed by Joseph Cedar
United King Films
103 minutes, (Hebrew with English subtitles)
Robert De Niro and his fellow judges at Cannes are not generally known for their interest in Jewish studies, but an Israeli film set in the Hebrew University's Talmud department won the award for "Best Screenplay" at the prestigious French film festival this spring. Since its opening in June, Hearat Shulayim (Footnote) by director and screenwriter Joseph Cedar has, not surprisingly, been the subject of incessant discussion among Israeli academics, but it has more on its mind than academic gossip. It is at once a family melodrama, a playful comedy, and a serious philosophical inquiry, as well as a series of winks and nods to those familiar with the academic subculture it portrays.
As the film begins, words in a font characteristic of academic Hebrew footnotes are typed across the screen informing viewers that they are about to witness "the worst day of Professor Scholnik's life." The scene shifts to a ceremony held at The Israel Museum to mark the induction of Professor Uriel Scholnik (superbly acted by the Israeli film star, Lior Ashkenazi) into the Israel Academy of Sciences. Uriel is an accomplished and gregarious professor of Talmud at the Hebrew University, whose carefully unkempt mane, designer glasses, solid maroon knit yarmulke, and salt-and-pepper beard reflect the well-cultivated image of a Jerusalemite public intellectual. Indeed, a later scene in which Uriel removes the yarmulke upon entering his home office may cause viewers to wonder whether Uriel is, to adapt a famous phrase, "a Jew in the street but a man in the home." He stands at the podium and accepts the honor with the kind of self-deprecating humor and sardonic wit born of confidence and a strong sense of self-worth.
Sitting in the audience is Scholnik's father, Professor Eliezer Scholnik (perfectly played by Shlomo Bar-Aba), an excruciatingly pedantic and methodical scholar on the faculty of the same university Talmud department as his son, though he is far less prolific, and for that matter, less popular. The peak of his career was his appearance, decades earlier, in a footnote in J. N. Feinstein's magnum opus, Introduction to the Text of Tannaitic Literature (a riff on the father of modern, critical talmudic research, J.N. Epstein's two books, Introduction to the Text of the Mishnah and Introduction to Tannaitic Literature). Close-ups of Bar-Aba's talented, old-school face-acting (he is first and foremost a stage comic) call attention to the senior Scholnik's palpable discomfort as he sits slumped in a chair, listening enviously as his son pays homage to the father who set him on his course. Although the identity of the "Professor Scholnik" who is experiencing the worst day of his life is initially ambiguous, it is clear by the end of the scene.