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Israel’s Dark Horse Contender For The Oscars

Israel is not a nation known internationally for their filmmaking, and certainly not here in the United States.  That may all be changing very soon.

When it comes to the Best Foreign Language category at the Oscars, Italy and France are juggernauts; France having earned 36 nominations in the category thus far with 12 wins and Italy with 27 nominations and 13 wins.  Far down the totem pole there’s Israel who in the history of the Academy Awards has received 10 nominations in the Best Foreign Language category, and zero wins.  Similarly, at the Cannes Film Festival, Israel has thus far earned two awards in the festival’s lifetime both for acting, until this year when Footnote, the fourth film by Israeli director Joseph Cedar, took home the Best Screenplay Award. Now, with the tenth Israeli film to receive a nomination for the Best Foreign Language prize at the Oscars, Cedar might well be on his way to putting Israel on the map of world cinema.

Footnote is the story of Uriel Sklolnik and his father Eliezer, both renowned Talmudic scholars at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.  Where Uriel is something like the Malcom Gladwell of Talmudic study, a rock star at translating the age-old text (in a profession appropriately devoid of rock stars) Eliezer is more like an undiscovered Proust, his work methodical and rigid, and to most people, too complex to even approach.  However, when Eliezer is finally notified that he’s been chosen to receive the annual Israel Prize for Talmudic studies, everything about him begins to change, even his bitter and impossible-to-please demeanor.  Even Uriel, whose father is seemingly the only person whose approval he is unable to obtain and who has yet to receive the prize for his own work, is pleased for his father, if not a tad jealous.  That is, until he learns that there’s been a major mistake, one that may prevent him from ever being eligible to win the prize himself.

In watching Footnote, it’s immediately refreshing to see how lighthearted this expectedly serious, scholarly film, actually is.  Immediately breaking the third wall and playing with filmic convention, Footnote appears almost like a Rob Reiner film in its silly approach to dealing with very serious characters.  Viewers are likely to walk into Footnote expecting one thing and getting another, because, though Footnote is a film about academia, and in particular Talmudic studies at the Hebrew University, there’s a sense that it could really be about any profession or competitive arena.  The dominant themes in Footnote are so universal that one needn’t even know what the Talmud is to understand and enjoy the film.  Above all, it’s a film about father and son, and the jealousy that naturally comes along when one person out of a small circle becomes “chosen,” both noun and an adjective.

Looked at form the point of view of screenplay writing, for which the film received the prize at Cannes, Footnote is a very subtle and nuanced work wherein the audience is left to draw their own conclusions and connect multiple dots, but from a filmmaking standpoint, Footnote is rather illustrious, with it’s non-linear storytelling, odd angles, and an elaborate, dramatic score.  Taking place in the heart of Jerusalem, Israel is certainly something of a character in the film, however, much like Footnote seemingly could have been about any profession, there’s also a sense that it could have taken place anywhere in the world, such is the brilliance and universality of the story.

“The Talmud is a vast tremendous document that covers all areas of life.  It is maybe the most impressive document ever composed. Footnote film deals with one of the values in that text, that argument is good.  The Talmud is fueled by the notion that conflict is an ingredient for progress and in order to crystallize an idea, you have to argue over that idea,” says Director Joseph Cedar about the Talmud’s importance to the film.

When asked whether Israeli film on the world stage, Cedar told me:

“The last 10 years have been great for Israeli cinema, we’ve been in all the festivals and we’ve had 3 Oscar nominations in 3 years,” although Cedar neglects to mention that two of these nominations were for his own films.

It’s interesting to ponder whether any kind of style is developing amongst Israeli filmmakers, or whether there are any identifying characteristics endemic to Israeli film. According to Cedar it’s just the opposite:

“I have friends who are making films and we like each other but we’re not part of some cinema movement, which is part of why film in Israel is vibrant.  Look at Romanian cinema, it all looks the same, all these national cinemas that have had a good wave of films, there’s something common about them.  The films that have been successful out of Israel have nothing in common. You never know what will do well and filmmakers feel like they have to surprise the audience, and that’s a good thing. As long as we feel like we have to supersize ourselves, we wont fade away.”

While no French or Italian films are nominated in this year’s Best Foreign Language category, Footnote remains the darkhorse contender due the presence of Iranian Filmmaker Asghar Farhadi’s “A Seperation,” the only foreign film also nominated for a the Best Original Screenplay Award at this year’s Oscars, and the most critically gushed upon foreign language film of the year.

So once again, Israel gets to be the underdog.

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