Israeli auteur no footnote

ISRAELI auteur Joseph Cedar’s latest film Footnote is a meditation on the basic human need for recognition and how it can consume integrity and honour.

Few people could be better placed to comment on the lure of glinting awards-season lucre and the acclaim that often accompanies it than Cedar, who is now 0-2 at the Oscars.

“Some of the motivation or the understanding of these kind of [awards] ceremonies, and what an award does to you, came from my experiences with my previous film,” Cedar said on the line from Israel.

The film he’s referring to is Beaufort, the brilliant 2007 war drama about Israel’s withdrawal from Southern Lebanon in 2000, which was nominated for the best foreign language film Oscar.

And it was life imitating art earlier this year when he was nominated once more, this time for Footnote, only to lose out again.

“You become very vulnerable to your need for recognition. There are many ways to maintain your happiness without being awarded the important awards, but if you don’t get recognition it becomes a very serious need that is never satisfied. This film doesn’t allow me to escape the importance of recognition in anyone’s life.”

Which isn’t to say Cedar’s films go unrecognised. Footnote won the best screenplay gong at Cannes last year and Beaufort garnered him the Silver Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival in 2007.

“When you win an award it’s a celebration … But always at the same time there’s this underlying feeling of shame. Shame for needing recognition in the first place, shame for being exposed with that need, a shame that maybe your work was motivated by the need for recognition.”

Whatever Cedar’s motivation, the results are pure.

Footnote is the writer/director’s best film to date, and his arrival as a world-class filmmaker is plain to see. But in an effort to ensure his process remains free of the corrupting influences of professional flattery, the 43-year-old refuses to talk about his next project, saying only that he’s “decided not to talk about movies before they’re made”.

What we do know is that he will be one of the contributing directors on the upcoming Jerusalem I Love You – another in the Cities of Love franchise after New York, I Love You and Paris je t’aime.

Footnote charts the complex relationship between Eliezer Shkolnik (Shlomo Bar-Aba) and his son Uriel (Lior Ashkenazi), who are both highly respected professors in the apparently gladiatorial field of Talmudic studies. Their lives are turned upside down with the news that Eliezer’s life’s ambition of being awarded the coveted Israel Prize is about to be fulfilled.

Cedar effortlessly switches up between black comedy, affecting drama and nerve-jangling suspense and says the film’s Hitchcockian twist was his setting out point.

“I started out with the plot twist, the idea that a big prize can change the lives of everyone involved. So that was the idea, and when I decided to place it in the Talmud department [of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem], it introduced me to certain kinds of characters and conflicts and arguments.”

It’s these superbly fleshed-out characters that anchor the film, and the conflict that gives Footnote its wicked sense of humour and poignancy.

At the centre of the film is a restrained and superbly nuanced performance from Bar-Aba as the misanthropic Eliezer, but Cedar said the decision to resurrect the career of veteran comic actor Bar-Aba, who had not worked in film for around 20 years, ­wasn’t straightforward.

“I had [Bar Aba] in mind while I was writing, so once I had a first draft I approached him and we met, and after the first meeting I was pretty sure he wouldn’t be right for this role because the person I had in mind was very different to the real Shlomo Bar-Aba. In real life he’s very, very energetic … He’s like a typhoon. But he did a screen test and once we saw what he could do it was a simple decision.”

Bar-Aba’s turn was recognised with the Israeli Film Academy award for best actor last year, one of nine awards from 12 nominations for the film.

For better or worse, Cedar’s meteoric rise means he will likely have to balance the maintenance of his artistic integrity with the tainted golden gongs for many a year to come.