Friday, March 30, 2012

Of Culture, High and Low – Footnote and Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness

Lior Ashkenazi and Shlomo Bar Aba in Footnote

It may seem like an unusual subject for a movie, but it’s apt that Joseph Cedar’s Israeli film Footnote – a provocative story of a father and son who are both scholars – deals with the specifics of academia and the vagaries of scholarship, since Israel is one country that values higher education, so much so that it punches above its weight when it comes to winning Nobel Prizes and the like. Footnote is also one of the more welcome Israeli features since it offers up a nuanced view of a country that is the sum of more than the divisive politics and tensions that seem to solely define it in most mainstream media coverage of the region.

Footnote, which swept Israel's top film awards (The Ophirs), garnered an Oscar nomination for best Foreign-language film, and won Best Screenplay at Cannes, also marks a maturation of Cedar’s talents. It is his most compelling, original and best-made movie yet, albeit one that falls short of the finest recent Israeli cinema. An Orthodox Jew, a rarity among the mostly secular filmmakers in Israel, Cedar began his career delving into the religious underpinnings of Israeli society. His debut movie Time of Favor (2000) was a slick but interesting thriller about a religious Jewish plot to blow up The Temple Mount, one of Islam’s holiest shrines, and the charismatic rabbi (Assi Dayan) whose sermons inadvertently inspired some of his more diligent students to interpret his words as a literal call to arms. Campfire (2004), based on Cedar’s time living in a religious settlement, was a choppy but fascinating look at the unique Jews who populate such places, seen through the eyes of a widow and her two young daughters who join a West Bank settlement. Beaufort (2007) was a powerful though admittedly familiar tale of an Israel Defense Forces unit about to vacate the high ground of a hard-won battle to capture a Crusader castle, a symbol of Israel’s ultimately futile invasion of Lebanon. Footnote (2011) goes further afield; it’s a drama that, though it deals with Talmudic discourse, is neither concerned with religion nor conflict, except through the passive aggressive one playing out between father and son.

The film begins with the son, Uriel Shkolnik (a bearded and almost unrecognizable Lior Ashkenazi, from Walk on Water and Late Marriage) being elected a member of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, an honour heretofore denied his father Eliezer (Shlomo Bar Aba) who’s silently fuming during the ceremony. Uriel seems a rather pompous, narcissistic sort, the type of professor/writer common to the academic field. But that’s not entirely a fair assumption as one learns when Eliezer, after nearly twenty years of being on the short list, finally is notified that he is to receive the country’s highest honour, The Israel Prize, annually given out on Israel’s Independence Day for academic excellence. (It’s a real prize, by the way, one that Cedar’s father Howard (Haim) Cedar, a biochemist, has actually won.) However, all is not what it seems and events quickly transpire which unveil the longstanding tensions in Uriel and Eliezer’s relationship, and also the unpleasant, jealous side of Uriel’s father. (The son’s no prize, either.)

Director Joseph Cedar
What starts out as a light-hearted, almost breezy tale soon turns into a very dark look at familial relations, similar in tone to Late Marriage (2001), Dovar Koshashvili’s lacerating drama which starred Ashkenazi as a man who pays a heavy price when he defies his close-minded family’s expectations of whom he should marry. But Footnote, despite its fine acting, never cuts quite as deeply and disturbingly as that earlier movie did.

That’s because Cedar is too clever by half and clutters up nearly half the movie with overly cute anecdotes about his two main characters, such as the one where Uriel gave six lectures in one night with images of him popping up literally all over a map. Or the listings of some facts we didn’t know about Eliezer. Those factoids are enunciated before the film’s title shows up, the text so to speak before the footnote. That seemed at first to be a smart way to introduce the film, but upon reflection, not so much. Nor does Cedar pull off all his jokes. A bit about Uriel’s clothes and possessions being stolen at the gym goes nowhere fast. And a scene where Eliezer meets a mystery woman is never explained. I don’t think movies need to tie up all loose ends, but refusing to identify the person whom Eliezer meets means a significant facet of the old man’s character remains unexplored.

Footnote actually functions best when it sticks to its main story: the mystery surrounding the Israel Prize; the rivalry between Eliezer and Yehuda Grossman (Micha Lewensohn), the man who undid nearly thirty years of the man’s work by publishing his startling finding of a lost Talmudic text before Eliezer could, reducing the latter to, well, a footnote in his field of expertise; and perhaps, most startlingly, the disturbing and harshly paternalistic tendencies common to both father and son when it comes to the loyal women in their lives. The movie is also a fascinating compendium of how the country’s awards and academic prizes play out in the media and on television, another way Israel deviates from the Western norm, which often slights or minimizes literary and scientific recognition. (The heavy security at all cultural events is subtly emphasized too, a sad reminder of the perpetual, unending terrorist threat hanging over daily Israeli life.)

Though Footnote doesn’t approach the highs of recent Israeli cinema (Walk on Water, Broken Wings, The Band’s Visit, Waltz with Bashir), it’s refreshing to watch a film that has a literary sensibility, a rarity in most movies and certainly in Hollywood. It actually becomes something of a (smart) thriller by its conclusion and ends on a refreshingly ambiguous note. If only Cedar hadn't been so glib at times and had decided to go further emotionally than he did, Footnote would have emerged as an inspired movie rather than just an entertaining one.


Author Sholem Aleichem
There’s one key revelatory scene in Footnote which takes place during a Hebrew language production of Fiddler on the Roof. The musical is just the backdrop for the film’s sequence, but it’s also a nod to the other end of Israeli culture, the portion common to all as opposed to the rarefied heights of cultural academia. That’s apropos because Fiddler, of course, began life as a series of unadorned stories about Tevye, the milkman (Tevye der milkhiker in Yiddish), penned by the famous Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem. So popular were those tales that they ended up being the basis for a very fine American Yiddish film, Tevye (1939), written, directed and starring the great Yiddish actor Maurice Schwartz, and the first non-English language film to be chosen for preservation by the U.S. Library of Congress. In addition, Tevye also found new life as the beloved and highly successful Broadway musical Fiddler on the Roof (1964), later turned into an equally popular film by Norman Jewison in 1971. But it’s the original Tevye, and the man who created him, which are the subject of Joseph Dorman’s conventional but still interesting documentary Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness.

Born Solomon Naumovich Rabinovich in 1859 in Russia into a Hasidic family, the young man soon went from an existence as the scion of a prosperous family to a boy growing up in dire poverty after his merchant father’s business failed. He also came into the world at a time when the insular Jewish life of the shtetl, the small mostly all-Jewish towns in Poland and Russia, was facing the realities of industrialization and the winds of social change as well as continuing to cope with a resurgent spectre of violent anti-Semitism and the pogroms, murderous attacks on Jews, which followed in its wake. Changing his name to Sholem Aleichem, the Yiddish greeting when one Jew meets another, he entered into a forbidden marriage with a young woman he tutored. He eventfully prospered, becoming a cultural icon, but only when he switched from writing in Russian and Hebrew to the more commonplace, coarser and accessible daily language of Yiddish.

Aleichem's funeral procession in New York, 1916.
Utilizing talking heads, including Aleichem’s American writer granddaughter Bel Kaufman (Up the Down Staircase) and Aaron Lansky, founder of the National Yiddish Book Center, which rescues Yiddish books form oblivion. Dornan – whose excellent 1998 documentary Arguing the World profiled four key new York Jewish intellectuals – attempts to get at the contradictions and depths of Aleichem and the world he lived and wrote in. He succeeds somewhat but on several occasions drops the ball. His shocking revelation that Aleichem refused to speak Yiddish, which is my first language incidentally, to his children at home, to the extent that they could not read him in the original, isn’t delved into enough. Did they eventually learn the language anyway; did they fall away from Judaism entirely? We don’t know because Dornan doesn’t tell us. Similarly though he mentions that Sholem Aleichem met the great writer Mark Twain, who wrote in a similar, folksy but realistic vein, he doesn’t let us in on the fact that when Twain, upon hearing that Sholem Aleichem was known as the Jewish Mark Twain, graciously replied that he was then the American Sholem Aleichem. (According to a teacher of mine in high school there’s even an existing picture of the two meeting in America, but it’s not in the movie either; too bad.)

And while Aleichem’s disastrous sojourn in New York (where he briefly settled and faced scathing reviews of two new Yiddish plays, which opened the same night) is depicted, it’s not nearly as fleshed out in terms of Aleichem’s anguish at the realities of the New World as Theodore Bikel’s first rate one man theatrical production Sholem Aleichem: Laughter Through Tears. Nor do we learn about Aleichem’s Zionism, adopted by many, though not all, Jews who began to despair of living in an anti-Jewish Europe and saw Palestine as the future home of the Jews.

My biggest beef with the doc is the lack of actual Yiddish utilized within the movie, though it’s an understandable tack for a film which harkens to mainstream success. Except for one audio clip of Aleichem reading in Yiddish, the man’s myriad writings are rendered in English, read by, among others, actor Peter Riegert (Crossing Delancey, The Sopranos). That leaves Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness lacking in flavour or taste; I'd have preferred to have had the actors read in Yiddish with English subtitles on the screen, just so audiences could get a better feel for the unique language.

That said, this is still an important film. I may wish for a better, more thought-out documentary on the man, but considering his vital importance to Jewish life and letters, this one will have to do.

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches regular courses at Ryerson University's LIFE Institute, where he just finished teaching a course on the films of Sidney Lumet, which began on Friday, Feb. 10, 2012.

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