The Hubris University of Jerusalem

Like A.O. Scott, Sidra and I only just saw Joseph Cedar's film "Footnote" ("He'arot Shulaim"), which I suppose makes us the last couple in (West) Jerusalem to do so. The film supposedly centers around a father-and-son academic rivalry, but it really centers, or gravitates, around the psyche of the father, a Hebrew University philologist, who seems intractably angry about having been ignored while his son is celebrated, but who may well be suffering from Asperger's--though he is a Hebrew University philologist, so how would you know?

I can go into all the reasons to admire the film: the turns of plot (the father uncovers his son's conspiracy to award him the Israel Prize--an award originally, mistakenly bestowed on the father, but meant for the son--by, of all things, analyzing his son's phrases in a contrived awards letter), the well-observed touches (son with a Yarmulke, father without), the mock-documentary innovations, the satiric blows.

The film captures very well how secular Jerusalem is a kind of company town, where social and professional connections consume you and are barely told apart; how cases for tenure or honors are righteously defended over coffee, all hedged about with references to scientific rigor or, failing this, demonstrable international "importance." I never felt a moment of boredom watching the film, that is, a moment when the scenes didn't shift intriguingly or seem familiar.

Yet I didn't feel the movie was ever quite true either, and I wonder if there isn't something peculiar to its Israeliness that explains why. I don't mean true in the sense of mistakes in plot details, or miscasting of actors. I mean it in the old sense that fiction must be truer than non-fiction, more psychological subtle, which the solar plexus judges more directly than the brain does. The closest thing to the story's climax has the father giving an interview to Haaretz, in which he tries to publicly humiliate his son, destroy his career, and thus presumably elevate himself and his methods. Is this remotely plausible even in the narcissistic atmosphere Cedar evokes?

"FOOTNOTE" HAS ITS moments, to be sure. Like everybody else, I particularly liked that scene in a claustrophobic committee room, in which the son is passionately appealing to keep the mistake secret, and the committee discusses the way committees discuss and do what committees do. But the passion in the moment is linked to a relationship, a very poignant empathy, and this is where the film fails. Where did this empathy come from and in what sincerity is it nested?

I am not saying fathers and sons could never be alienated from one another, God knows, but this father and this son in this place? Yes, the former is introverted and narcissistic and steeped in a particular tradition of scholarship. Yes, the son is a kind of antithesis, more his mother's son than his father's, though not so much more that he fails to enter his father's profession. Yes, fathers can lose their tempers and shame sons in private, as the son does with his own son. Yes, little Oedipuses can try to trump their fathers, especially by entering their fathers' professions.

But this case is emotionally unlikely nevertheless. The father is trying to trump his son publicly, a son who clearly wants his father to be more celebrated than he's been. He hungers for his father's affection, even as he takes a different, more gregarious and open-spirited path to textual interpretation. He praises his father at a ceremony in his own honor. They both live in a small city walking distance apart. Would a father of such a son return the favor by endeavoring to destroy his son's reputation, even in a moment of sanctimonious abandon?

SCOTT SAYS THE the film showcases "an intergenerational tzimmes worthy of Shakespeare, Freud or the more melodramatic portions of the Hebrew." But knowledge of Shakespeare, Freud, the Bible--for that matter, of Willy Loman, Don Corleone and Kim Il-sung--suggests that to think of narcissism in this way is to misunderstand perhaps its strongest impulse, especially in the case of a father who thinks himself embattled and unappreciated. Such a man would much more likely dramatize his son's importance, revel in it--claim him and unleash him. (Forget the binding of Isaac, or the Good News of Gospels: jealousy was irrelevant there.)

At some point the film slyly mocks this truth by recalling a dictum in The Ethics of the Fathers, the one about how fathers are never jealous of sons and teachers never jealous of students--recalling it just before the father turns the knife. The mocking is meant to imply that Cedar thought of this and, in reversing our expectation, has earned a right to ignore its force. But that is like saying implausible protagonists become plausible just by acknowledging their own creepiness. Anyway, I know something about fatherhood, teaching--and narcissism--and to disprove the dictum, you have to have a character more warped and distant than this father. But then would he recruit this son's kind of love?

Indeed, it is the sharply truncated ending of the film, before residual love would bring some messy but sympathetic denouement, that is most disappointing. It is as if the filmmaker is saying: "Sorry: such endings are for sissies and would be disingenuous; this is really real life; love hurts, when it is not just a sentimental fraud, which can even be true between fathers and sons."

Let's just say the point is not proven. The father's actions, and attitudes, are fictionally asserted, just not believably or enduringly conveyed. Envy is for brothers. It is terrible, unnatural, for a father regarding his son: supposing envy to be a reason for him to ruin his son is like supposing it enough to show a mother ambitious when she drowns her baby. The hardest part for Cedar would have been working out an ending in which a father's love and remorse work through his other emotions. This Cedar, for all his obvious brilliance, refused to undertake.

THE QUESTION MIGHT be asked: how then did Cedar suppose he could make the story stick? I don't know him, or if he'd even feel the need to ask the question, but I suspect the answer has something to do with what often seems a prevailing Israeli style, which is to presume one is being deep by making characters numb, or just acknowledging numbness as pervasive and even vaguely manly. Israel, in this style, is a country of people who'd refuse to smile for snapshots. You get this from Cedar's earlier film, "Beaufort," and in such other recent hits as "Good Morning, Mr. Fiddleman." It's become a kind of thing. Just look at television news anchors smirking through reports.

Perhaps this is the inevitable effect of living so long without trusted horizons, of being unable to let down one's guard. Perhaps it is an atmosphere of military violence. Perhaps it is a kind of old Zionist impulse, personified by Moshe Dayan--who was no kind of father, but whose children felt wrecked because of his narcissistic public indulgences, not public humiliations--to scoff at affection as a luxury, if not a fraud, that Jews cannot afford in a hard world. Numb is cool.

I fear that Cedar is trying to prove an ultimate thing--sort of the way Portnoy's Complaint tried proving the ubiquity of desire by making Jews libidinous, or "Brokeback Mountain" proved the ubiquity of sexual repression by making cowboys gay. It is that love is a bit of a fraud, seeing how solitary and selfish human beings are--and thus how cynical artists must be. How better to prove this than through a story that purports to expose how a father--raging, and without inhibitions--will destroy his own son to acquire honors and advance his own truth? I don't buy it. They don't call the book "ethics of the fathers" for nothing.