Footnote: perils of academia
October 11, 2012 Leave a comment
There was another post that I’d wanted to write tonight…but there’s no way I can finish that before this one. Not because I liked this title more, but simply because I need to get it out of my head before it screws with my thoughts any further. Though I’m not entirely I’ll be able to do that…
The film in question is Footnote, an Israeli offering about two academics, father and son, with contrasting and irreconcilable approaches to the same, extremely narrow, field: Talmudic scholarship. The father, having spent many years on a single project only to be beaten to publication by the chance find of a rival, now seethes at the popularity and recognition accorded to his son, whose focus and methods he despises. Having hungered for the Israel Prize for years, his bitterness at never receiving it has translated into a stream of criticism that it has lost its value. What happens, then, when a bureaucratic error results in the father being awarded the prize instead of his son?
Note that this is probably a film that’s impossible to talk about without spoiling the ending…and knowing this one really will spoil the experience, so I really would recommend that staying away unless you have already seen it.
Two major factors stand out about Footnote, the first of which represents the main reason I decided to watch it. At the core of this film is a story about the academic world, about people who are revered and others who are ridiculed – sometimes, they are subject to both reactions – for their obsessions with their areas of expertise. It’s about people who fight viciously, dragging others down spitefully to get to the heap of the pile. About people who paradoxically seek the respect and acknowledgement of those they envy, those they look down upon, and sometimes, those they’ve always admired. It’s a story about the world that I might be dragging myself into.
Albeit, in a completely different subject. Though, I will admit, the idea of studying Japanese that obsessively is quite appealing!
The second factor that sticks with me is something that may have a bearing on the first: the film ends in an extremely thought provoking manner. I’ll be honest – I really did not expect it to end at the point it did, at a point where the characters could take a multitude of paths; some that would probably resolve the tensions that had been built up until that point, and others that would lead the snapping of those taut strings.
A lot of people in the West seem to describe Footnote as a comedy, but that ending really stopped me cold. Some parts were hilarious, such as the meeting in the tiny office in the Ministry of Education, where everyone had to stand up to let one person in or out of the room. Running all the different scenarios that that ending could lead on to through my head, I also found myself reflecting on the different possible interpretations of each characters’ decision. Was Uriel’s crucial decision an act of kindness or a hidden thorn? Was it one or great courage or cowardice? Is Elizier’s resistance to the establishment something to be admired, or something to be ridiculed? Was the great expectation that Uriel placed upon his own son actually damaging to the youth in the long run?
The film answers none of these. Perhaps it’s suggesting that there is no universal answer, or perhaps its creators merely want us to reflect on these questions on our own. Which brings me to my reaction: if this is academia, it’s a sobering thought.