This fourth feature from Israeli writer-director Joseph Cedar will undoubtedly divide critics; already one eminent French critic told me of his bewilderment that such a heavy-handed, unamusing comedy had been chosen for the main competition in Cannes. But that’s perhaps to misread Cedar’s intentions; while there are plenty of scenes which this writer, at least, enjoyed for their wry, bone-dry humour, much of the film operates in a rather more serious register. Indeed, it might even be seen as a mini-tragedy about sacrifice and temptation.
It concerns the intense rivalry between a father and son: Eliezer and Uriel Shkolnik (Shlomo Bar Aba and Lior Ashkenazi), both professors in the Talmudic studies department at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. It begins – dramatically – with the worst day in the former’s life, when he has to attend a ceremony welcoming his son into the Academy, an honour he himself never received. Things improve for Eliezer when he hears that he’s finally going to be given, after decades of disappointed waiting, the prestigious Israel Prize. It may, as a chapter heading tells us, be the best day of his life, but it’s also the start of a series of events that are not only morally complicated but, perhaps, infinitely sad.
The film is almost novelistic in terms of the detail and subtlety with which Cedar draws both the many differences and similarities between father and son, not to mention the arcane workings of and divisions within Israel’s academic establishment. At the same time, however – and this is partly where the film’s brilliance lies – he adopts a vividly imaginative cinematic style so that form reflects content; the film’s title, for example, refers not only to a small but crucial detail in the storyline but also to a way in which we might regard the modest but conscientious elder professor and to an aspect of the film’s own narrative structure.
Clearly, this is a film that has been meticulously thought through on every level. So even though many found its orchestral score overly insistent and loud, its tone – reminiscent at times of the late symphonies of Shostakovich, some of which were themselves of course profoundly concerned with Jewish history and suffering – is entirely appropriate to this study of seemingly small-scale familial and academic conflict which nevertheless takes on, for all involved, the dimensions of an epic struggle between the old and the new, truth and falsehood, right and wrong.