The story of a great rivalry between a father (Shlomo Bar-Aba) and son (Lior Ashkenazi), both eccentric professors, who have dedicated their lives to their work at the Talmud department of Hebrew University in Jerusalem. The father seems a stubborn purist who fears the establishment. His son, Uriel, appears to strive on accolades, endlessly seeking recognition. But one day, the tables turn. The two men switch places when the father learns he is to be awarded the most valuable honour one can receive. His desperate need for recognition is betrayed, his vanity exposed. Uriel is torn between pride and envy. Will he sabotage his father’s glory?
1) When an exceptionally gifted filmmaker comes along, their rare talent can sometimes become obvious within minutes of the film's opening.
2) If the director – in this case, Joseph Cedar, previously known for the war film, Beaufort – is really talented, it’s very unlikely you will be the sole person to notice. While knowing nothing about the film or its filmmaker while watching, I was not surprised to discover afterwards that it had won the Cannes best screenplay prize last year (though the direction is equally deserving of public honour), as well as being Oscar nominated for best foreign film, and winning nine prizes in the Israeli equivalent of the Academy Awards.
3) A film with content that sounds obscure, dry and irrelevant to the wider world can, in the right hands, say things that are universal.
4) It sometimes appears that the more brilliant the film, the harder it is to market. Words like 'originality’, 'innovation’ and 'cinematic’ don’t really cut it on the movie poster.
That's why this review has so far avoided describing it as 'a story of father-son rivalry in the ultra-specialised world of Talmudic scholarship’. While this is true, there is surely no faster way to make most readers immediately toss it into the 'don’t bother’ basket. That, however, would be overlooking its inspiringly cinematic treatment of powerful elemental themes including inter-generational family conflict and obligation; jealousy and frustration; professional pride and hubris.
Eliezer Shkolnik (Shlomo Bar'aba) is an elderly professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem who has devoted his life to the study of different versions of the Jerusalem Talmud, an area so specialised that the rivalry is intense and personal. Shkolnik, it quickly becomes obvious, is a bitterly disappointed man who feels his life’s work has gone unrecognised.
When his son, Uriel (Lior Ashkenazi), who studies in a related area at the same university, is made a member of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities in a grandiose ceremony, Eliezer’s face, instead of showing the appropriate feelings of pride, betrays feelings of sadness and resignation, even barely concealed hostility. (This is captured in a daringly long-lasting close-up – a directing decision validated by Bar’aba’s marvellously subtle performance.)
Yet good news follows soon afterwards when the old man is told he is to achieve his lifelong ambition: he has been chosen as a recipient of the coveted Israel Prize. The next day, however, Uriel is unexpectedly called to meet the prize committee"¦
It would be unfair to reveal much more, other than to say that Cedar navigates his way through a thicket of cruel ironies with utmost assurance, transforming this tiny world into a site of dramatic human struggle full of calculation, well-intentioned lies, self-sacrifice, self-interest and political dealing. There’s an entire universe of emotion here, and it’s illuminated with shafts of sly wit.