When A Separation won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film last month, Iranian state TV reportedly trumpeted the win as a triumph over Israel, whose own Oscar submission, Footnote, was also among the nominees. It’s a totally unnecessary nationalization of the two features that’s made more ludicrous by how intimate and domestic their narratives are—Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation, about two households colliding due to a divorce, and Joseph Cedar’s Footnote, about the relationship between a father and son working in the restricted, rigorous world of Talmudic studies.
That narrowness is essential. Lior Ashkenazi and Shlomo Bar-Aba aren’t just colleagues, they’re competing for limited prestige and attention. And while the son, Ashkenazi, fell in love with the field thanks to his father, he’s beating his dad in the race by being more charismatic and better with people, and positioning his work in a way that’s more accessible to the public. Bar-Aba is difficult and detail-obsessed, and prefers bunkering down in his office under noise-canceling headphones, which would be fine, except he also deeply resents not getting the recognition he feels is his due. His life’s work was nullified when a rival published a paper similar to the one he’d spent decades researching, and his only great achievement is an acknowledgment in a footnote of a work by his late, greatly respected mentor.
Cedar breaks up these father-son dynamics with visual flourishes, including nods to old-school slideshows, or footnotes about the characters thrown out onscreen. And there’s a wry humor to the academic power plays, from the taking out of aggression on the squash court to a dramatic meeting in an office so small that when someone gets upset and needs a moment alone, everyone has to stand up to let him out. But the love, jealousy, and stubborn pride of the relationship between Ashkenazi and Bar-Aba is the heart of the film, and that makes the deliberately uncertain note of the ending particularly frustrating. Their history is so fraught and so much goes unsaid between them that viewers may long for the quietly seismic event that occurs to actually play out, to force a confrontation. When so much of this story revolves around understanding and living with a loved one’s flaws, hammering in the compromises this requires and then pausing on the verge of them being aired seems coy in a film that’s otherwise briskly honest.