(2011) Dramedy (Sony Classics) Shlomo Bar Aba, Lior Ashkenazi, Alisa Rosen, Alma Zak, Daniel Markowich, Micah Lewensohn, Yuval Scharf, Nevo Kimchi, Albert Iluz, Idit Teperson, Shmuel Shiloh, Michal Koresh, Daria Robichek, Dana Glozman, Jackey Levi. Directed by Joseph Cedar
Fathers and sons are often the most competitive of men. Sons spend their entire lives trying not just to live up to their fathers but to exceed them. Fathers are often wary of their sons attempts to do just that and can come to resent the success of their sons, particularly when it overshadows their own.
Eliezer Shkolnik (Bar Aba) is a Talmudic scholar at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He is well-known for his meticulous nature and his eye for detail. He spent decades examining various versions of the Talmud in order to explain their changes, coming to a radical solution. However, just before he was to publish his results, a rival academic stumbled onto the same conclusions – not by doing the same methodical research but by finding a note in a copy of a European Talmud from the 16th century that led him to the same place. The rival published first and all of Eliezer’s work went for naught.
His son Uriel (Ashkenazi) has also entered the family business, so to speak. Rather than being a plodder, like his father, Uriel is more of a modern academic, publishing best-selling books and being invited to join prestigious societies and boards, honors denied his father. At one such ceremony, the father watches his son’s big moment with a dour expression, his humiliation furthered by his son’s tribute to him that ends up being a pointed reminder of his failures.
So it is surprising when Eliezer gets a call from the Israeli Minister of Education congratulating him on the receipt of the Israel Prize, the highest honor in the Jewish academic world. This is a validation on Eliezer’s entire career and this belated recognition transforms the dour old man.
Except that it isn’t real. A hasty convening of the board of judges for the prize reveals to Uriel the truth – the wrong Professor Shkolnik got the call. It was not the meticulous old man whose greatest achievement to that point was to have been a footnote in a respected work on Talmudic research by Israel’s most beloved scholar who was to be honored, it was his superstar, best-selling son who was in reality the face of Israeli academia.
But what to do? Taking the prize away from his dad would be the ultimate slap in the face and as a son Uriel couldn’t bear to be the object of his father’s humiliation but to allow his father to receive an undeserved award would be not only an invalidation of the prestigious award itself but also a violation of the very Talmudic scripture that he had spent his life researching.
The heart of the movie is not the Talmud itself, although it figures in peripherally. No, the rivalry between father and son is what Cedar is interested in examining in this Oscar nominated (for Best Foreign Language Film) work. While father and son are cordial, the tension between them is palpable. Uriel considers his father a dinosaur, a man who has spent a lifetime researching the equivalent of finding the number of angels who can dance on the head of a pin. Eliezer sees his son as the embodiment of everything that has corrupted academics; desiring of fame, laziness in research and hasty in conclusion. His son is a rock star in academics, which the father agrees with and not in a good way.
Cedar enlisted two fine actors for the roles of father and son; although the physical resemblance is barely superficial at best, the two create a relationship that is highly believable. Bar Aba spends most of the movie with a disapproving glower, which any son will tell you is an expression they are used to from their fathers. Ashkenazi is a shaggy bear of a man, far more sociable and articulate than his father, able to take esoteric ideas and make them accessible, a gift that his father neither possesses nor wants. Uriel’s classes are well-attended and as a professor he is encouraging. Eliezer’s classes rarely have more than a handful of students and as a professor he is hyper-critical and demeaning. On the surface, the father seems to be a bitter curmudgeon, the son a nicer, sweeter man.
The genius of this film is that we get beneath the surface. We discover that Grossman (Lewensohn), the chairman of the Israel Prize committee, has a bitter rivalry with Eliezer and has been holding his career back at every turn. We also see that as the film goes on and Eliezer finally feels the vindication he has been seeking for so long that his son becomes bitter for reasons I won’t detail here as to not spoil the film.
The humor here is very low-key and well-choreographed, such as a meeting that takes place in a conference room far too small for the number of people inside it, with jockeying for position whenever someone needs to move. That scene, like most of the others in the movie, carries an innate quirkiness that one associates with academics to begin with; it is almost Wes Anderson-like in scope, with clever graphics and clever dialogue.
However keep in mind that like the subject itself, often the movie can get a little dry. Like Eliezer, the audience needs to have an eye (and ear) for detail and a bit of patience. Still, this is a film that has a fresh viewpoint on a subject as old as mankind itself (and I’m not talking about the Talmud) and gives some insight into the relationship between fathers and sons that perhaps most fathers and sons – not to mention wives and daughters – could benefit from.
REASONS TO GO: The highly competitive nature of the father-son dynamic is highlighted. Low-key hilarity.
REASONS TO STAY: Kind of dry in places.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief nudity and a bit of smoking. There are a few harsh words but mostly the thematic element might be a little bit over the head of most kids..
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bar Aba is actually a stage comedian; this is his first film in 20 years.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/28/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews. Metacritic: 82/100. The film has been embraced by critics.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Royal Tenenbaums
ACADEMIC LOVERS: Nearly every character in the film is involved with academic research in some way and the movie shows the lifestyle of a university academic from the houses full of books to the recesses of the university libraries to the social life of professors and students at the school.
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10