Israeli Film Review: Footnote
In a sense, the excellent Israeli movie Footnote tells a thoroughly Jewish, or even Judaic tale. The movie is in Hebrew and set in Israel. The plot revolves around two professors, a father and a son, at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Both are Talmudic scholars.
And yet, more fundamentally, the movie is universal, and not Jewish at all. The Israeli setting, the Hebrew language, is incidental. This is a story about family, and about academia. The language, setting, and the academic discipline are irrelevant. It could just as easily have been about literary scholars in France, or chemists in England.
Some might argue that the elephant in the room of this film is the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Israel is able to make a movie that completely ignores the existence of the Palestinians, which simply provides more evidence of the power of the occupation.
I read this fact differently. I think it is the fulfillment of one kind of Zionist dream, specifically Theodor Herzl’s dream of Jewish and Israeli normalization. Herzl supposedly quipped something to the effect of: “A Jewish state would only be a normal country if Jewish street-cleaners and gardeners worked in the same cities as Jewish doctors, lawyers and businessmen, and when Jewish policemen arrested Jewish prostitutes.”
Well, there certainly are Jewish sex workers in Israel (though I don’t think they should be arrested). But my point is that movies like Footnote are evidence of the partial normalization of Israel. They provide a vision of what Israel might be, if the Palestinian conflict were resolved. A country like any other, with the ability to tell universal stories using its own language and cultural markers. It’s a vision I endorse, one that seems far away, but provides the occasional glimmer of hope.
In any case, the movie is terrific. It’s funny and poignant, with great dialogue and superb acting. The film is accesible to anyone, but it’s especially relevant for historians (as Talmudists, the protagonists are de facto medieval historians) and anyone familiar with archival research and the academic life. And this isn’t just my opinion: Footnote was nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Film. Go see it.