Cannes 2011 Review – Hearat Shulayim

Don’t you love it when a film has an apt title? Footnote is such a film, as this should not become more than a footnote in the rich history of the Cannes Film Festival indeed.

While a strained father-son relationship has been done many times before, there is nothing against getting fresh insight on the subject. Director Joseph Cedar, however, has made the error of trying several angles, and really trying to wring everything possible out of it. Part comedy, part drama, the pic gets lost in gimmickry, dreary dialogue, failed humor, and a score that is so intrusive and, most of all, LOUD, the end result is a film that should not be in competition in Cannes, and maybe not be here at all.

Eliezer Scholnik (Shlomo Bar-Aba, who goes a bit too much for caricature) is a philologist, a well-respected lecturer and researcher. His biggest problem is that his own life’s work was rendered useless by a colleague’s discovery, but even more that his son Uriel (Lior Ashkenazi, in the only noteworthy acting of the film) is more successful in the same field, for research that Eliezer clearly considers inferior. The film opens with Uriel receiving a prestigious award. His family is of course present, and it is pretty clear father Eliezer thinks he should have been the one to receive it. So, unsurprisingly, he is very pleased to get a phone call saying that he has been awarded an even more prestigious prize. However, it turns out that this was a mistake: the caller was under the impression she was speaking with the other professor Scholnik.

The award committee tries to cover up the error by making his son be the bearer of bad news to the father. In an unexpected move, the son sticks up for his old man, and demands that the award actually be given to his father. After some arguing back and forth it is decided that the award will indeed go to Eliezer, but Uriel has to write the jury report. Of course this is discovered by the father (he is a philologist with over 30 years of experience in studying texts, after all), so there is no saving this father-son relationship. It also does not help that in the wake of his ‘win’ Eliezer gives an interview heavily critical of his son’s work, basically calling him a hack.

Even if both principal actors manage to convey a relationship that is difficult but still based in family love, it is director Cedar who destroys all possibility of this becoming a good film by inserting several elements that simply do not work. Especially the first act is overstuffed with visual and aural gimmicks that lay out the characters’ back story. Furthermore, the comedy feels forced. In one glaring example, Uriel is called to a meeting where he will hear about the mistake. The room is so small that when he wants to enter, and later exit, everyone has to stand up and move the chairs and table around. This is played for laughs, but the situation is so contrived and out of place it becomes painful.

But the worst offender is the score. At times I wanted to cover my ears against bombast and loudness at all the wrong moments. Cedar certainly is not a director of the ‘less is more’ school (that would be Michael director Markus Schleinzer, seen later the same day). Every stroke is broad and big, and no matter how much Ashkenazi tries to insert some subtlety, the film falls flat on its face. A missed chance, perhaps, but I fear that with this director the film had no chance to begin with. Worst competition entry so far, by a considerable margin.