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Part text-based detective story, part searing family drama about a bitter father-son relationship, Footnote is a film that can be read many ways.

Set in the insular community of Talmudic scholars, the story revolves around a mix-up. Eliezer Shkolnik receives a phone call congratulating him on receiving the Israel Prize; except the phone call was intended for his son, Uriel Shkolnik.

Although they're both Talmudic scholars of a sort, the father and son are on opposite ends of the academic spectrum. Younger Uriel is a star, in demand as a speaker at synagogues and community halls for his pithy observations on Jewish tradition. The father is a hermit who has toiled for decades on a radical thesis only to be usurped by another colleague. One treats words with an almost forensic devotion. The other mixes and matches text to suit the topic.

 Eliezer Shkolnik (Shlomo Bar Aba) in Footnote. (Sony Pictures Classics)

Director Joseph Cedar captures Uriel's frustration with his Dad, whose disappointment with his son is written on his face. There are interesting questions posed about the value of family ties versus secrets that eat away at us. As Eliezer transforms from plodding zombie to a joy-filled, whistling human because of his win, his son refuses to take the acclaim that is rightly his. But Eliezer himself, a crank who could give Walter Matthau a run for his money, can't help himself. In an interview with a journalist, he insults, not just his son but the very institution giving the award. Shlomo Bar-Aba captures Eliezer expertly, showing someone who retreats into the world of the word. His standards are high and unforgiving, regardless of the consequences they create.

While Footnote touches on the modern politics of Israel and the daily security gauntlet everyone runs, it's greatest relevance is toward anyone who's worked in higher education. There's a scene that manages to be farcical and scathing at the same time where Uriel begs the Academy of Science Israel prize jury to reconsider their decision. It's an academic knife fight in close quarters as the entire jury and Uriel cram into a supply closet doing double duty as a conference room. Between the scraping of chairs and constant shifting of positions, Uriel drops his warm and friendly persona and opens fire on jury chairman Grossman. As Uriel tears into him, we watch as the creases in actor Micah Lewensohn's waffle-wrinkled forehead get deeper and deeper. A mini masterwork of comic claustrophobia.

Footnote isn't note perfect. There are allusions to certain misdeeds by family members that could use clarifying and writer/director Cedar clouds the climax by playing up Eliezer's autism. It's an unnecessary embellishment on a character who is fascinating from frame one. Still, like a curious crossword, Footnote is a film worth puzzling over.

RATING: 4 out 5.

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