Monday, March 26, 2012

New Film: Footnote (2011)

Joseph Cedar's distinctively writerly Footnote (Hearat Shulayim, 2011), recipient of the 'best screenplay' prize at last year's Cannes film festival, falls, for this writer at least, in that easily ignorable, unevenly pleasurable space between modernist art cinema and commercial product that in this country goes by the name 'independent.' A cinema of ideas before personal expression and individuation, of character typologies and an aggressive musical score that would not have been out-of-place in an Italian Miramax import from twenty years ago, Footnote would scream out for the same fate as yesteryear's long forgotten Oscar 'best foreign language' nominees were it not for Cedar's legitimate skill as a Lincoln Plaza hack. By creating brisk narrative art that is as involving and entertaining as it is well-made, Cedar transforms the potentially cloying markers of his idiom into concrete storytelling assets, positive embellishments rather than critical disqualifiers.

Cedar establishes the narrative system that so successfully guides Footnote in the picture's opening set-piece: off-camera, apparent voice-over narration, coupled with on-screen titles, introduces the spectator to a professor Shkolnik in a form that immediately recalls (to cite Tativille co-proprietor Lisa K.Broad) the "information-aesthetic" strategies of American indie maestro Wes Anderson and festival French correlate Arnaud Desplechin. With Shlomo Bar-Aba appearing first and most frequently over these opening shots, the spectator imagines the late middle-aged academic to be the subject of the voice-off, which a subsequent cut reveals to be diegetic rather than voiced over. However, when finally this introduction concludes, Eliezer's son Uriel (Lior Ashkenazi) rises, vacating the two-shot to give his acceptance speech, even as the very sullen Eliezer remains alone in the now unbalanced shot. This sequence provides not only a model for the film's systematic series of reversals showcasing Cedar's special aptitude for regulating and then undermining spectatorial expectation; it also foreshadows the film's principle dramatic development with an honor presumed to belong to the older more rigorous Talmudic scholar intended instead for his more fashionable, though less intellectually serious son. In this first example, Cedar's content admirably finds a formal analogue.

For this writer, who happens by profession to be an academic, though regretfully gifted with neither Eliezer's fortitude nor Uriel's fashion, Footnote likewise deserves credit for getting it right, for often comedically emphasizing the role of politics, particularly of the personal variety, and for insisting that success and meaningful work often have little to do with one another. Though apropos of the film's systematic reversals the viewer will come to see both Eliezer and Uriel differently over the course of the picture's duration, ultimately Cedar does seem to side more with the overlooked elder and again with his pursuit of knowledge as opposed to his son's impressionist approach and commensurate cult of personality. That Footnote once again is a film of ideas rather than conspicuous auteurist self-expression, of an essentially pre-modernist (even as it verges toward the post-modern) artfully manipulated narrative instead of outright formal reinvention, makes this allegiance all the more appropriate. In content as much as in form Footnote admirably belongs to the neglected middle. 

No comments: