A Talmud-Place at the Movies (Joseph Cedar, Footnote)

Intimate, caustic, and backbiting –now that’s a religion movie!! It’s not often that you get to see Jewish Studies staged on the big screen. Kudos to Daniel Boyarin, who gets mentioned in Jospeh Cedar’s Footnote! And also to Alon, Ben Sasson, Urbach, and I forget whom else. I saw Footnote on the big screen (okay, medium screen) at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas. Another reason to live in New York, and not in Syracuse, where I can’t believe the only way to see this film will not be via Netflix.

The plot of the film is fairly simple.  A father and son are university scholars of Talmud Studies. Representing the old guard lost in the world of manuscripts and their words, the father pursues rigorous philological research, with little to show for it in concrete results of major or even numerous publications. The son, a good son but a bit of an ass, pursues a more cultural studies interest in the field, for which he garners a little local fame. Hilarity ensues, some of it very, very funny, if you like bitter caustic humor. A mix up between father and son ensues relating the the granting of the prestigious Israel Prize, which is itself enmeshed in the competition for truth and fame between senior scholars.

The plot was interesting as far as it goes, which, in this case, for me, went pretty far. But I was more interested by the ambient sense of place that frames the film.

I was immediately struck by the resemblance between Footnote and Cedar’s 2007 film Beaufort. The first film is about a group of soldiers during the first Lebanon War on a forward position-post at Beaufort, a Crusader castle in Southern Lebanon of strategic significance before and during the war. Almost all of the film is set in the deep, closed-in, protected interior spaces cut onto the top of the mountain. Soldiers scurry through its dimly lit command posts, tunnels, and trenches like the inhabitants of some lunar colony, or like insects in some striated space theorized by Deleuze.

The spaces in Footnote are just as closed-up. All those inside spaces. There’s the scholars studies (set apart in an adjacent room or downstairs ), the bowels of the National Library in Jerusalem, the yellow head-sets with which the father closes out the outside world, the rooms in which micro-fiche (?) are pursued, line by line, the piles of notes and more notes organized into folders and placed in vellum envelopes, the squash court, the television studio, the deep inside space of the culture section of an Israeli newspaper, the tiny meeting room in the Ministry of Education, which is played like a scene in Night of the Opera, but with more pent-up violence, the wrinkled folds of a senior colleague, which makes his forehead look more like a brain than a pate. Security personnel control egress to important event-venues as if to draw attention to political life of the bubble-like state that surrounds the film’s protagonists.

This inside world of “the footnote” is full of intense volatility. At the most obvious level, there’s the volatility between fathers and sons, the volatility the world of scholars. By the end of the film, it was the volatility of words and within words that struck me the most, the volitity in which “fortress” can become “trap.”  This too reminds me of Beaufort.

In other words, it’s a “vital” world (full of deep undercurrents and surface disruptions). It’s not, however, a “living” world. That is, it does not interconnect in any real relational way with a life-world outside its narrow arc. Like Beaufort, is this what makes Footnote such an Israeli movie? Is this both the source of the deep problems that beset and also the condition of possibility that makes for the intense living current that animates Israel and Talmud and also Judaism?

(The difference between “vital” and “living” comes from book I of Franz Rosenzweig’s The Star of Redemption, where the distinction is intened to convey, in caricature, the sculpted, self-relating gods of Olympus and heroes of Greek tragedy versus the living, other-relating, speech-acting God of the Hebrew Bible and “His” people Israel)

Like Talmud and like scholarship and like Judaism and like probably anything relating to religion and culture, the movie takes you deep inside a bubble. Please let me out now. I went to the movies on a Monday afternoon. I left the dark space of the cinema and took a long walk home up Columbus Avenue on a sunny, spring-like day, outside into the fresh air and living currents inside the bubble that is Manhattan.

(see Kristin Hohenadel’s excellent review in the NYT: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/04/movies/footnote-israeli-film-by-joseph-cedar.html?pagewanted=all)

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
This entry was posted in uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to A Talmud-Place at the Movies (Joseph Cedar, Footnote)

  1. nitzan says:

    I thought about Beaufort as well, but from a slightly different perspective– the one of fathers sacrificing willingly their sons, whether it is to the military Molech (the earlier film) or to ambition (the later). The closure with the singing of Hatikvah tells you something about the allegorical level of this film (in Beaufort its the “return” to Israel). The fortress as a collective state of consciousness.

  2. Ed says:

    Here’s another excellent review, which you may enjoy if you can overcome your allergy to Tikvah-funded enterprises:

    (the review was penned by Hebrew Univ., Dept. of Talmud insider, Shai Secunda. Shai can also be found at http://www.thetalmudblog.wordpress.com)

Leave a Reply