Outside it is late Saturday night, just before midnight on La Croisette. Men in tuxedos, drunks in stinking T-shirts, women in evening gowns, bewildered tourists, hunched-over beggars with outstretched hands, Africans selling hats, all of humanity teems on the Cannes Film Festival’s central artery.
Inside the Plage Blanche, a posh private beach club with tight security just off La Croisette, a spot where it is quiet enough to hear the waves break, an intimate party is beginning for “Footnote,” Israeli filmmaker Joseph Cedar’s exceptional new film.
I am in a sanctum within that sanctum, in a small space temporarily walled off by tall bamboo screens so that I can have a conversation with the writer-director. Cedar, 42, is Sabbath-observant, so this is the first opportunity anyone will have to talk with him about his work, and I am braving the chaos and staying up late because “Footnote” is the film I’ve enjoyed most at the festival so far. It’s a serious farce with significant issues on its mind, a film that invites both laughter and reflection as it seamlessly changes tones from comic to dramatic.
It is somehow appropriate that Cedar’s Sabbath observance played a part in the interview situation, because “Footnote” is about a pair of competitive scholars of the Talmud, the central document of the Jewish religious tradition, rival academics who just happen to be a misanthropic father (Shlomo Bar Aba) and his gregarious son (Lior Ashkenazi).
“When you see a Chinese film, you often feel it is rooted in some kind of ancient Chinese tradition,” Cedar says. “The Talmud is our primary text, our tradition. It’s something I want to deal with if I am making movies in Israel.”
Cedar, a thoughtful man with an innate sense of modesty, is more than making movies in Israel. Starting with “Time of Favor” in 2001, he is making them as well or better than anyone else in the country. His most recent effort, “Beaufort,” not only earned him the Silver Bear for best director from the Berlin Film Festival, but it was also the first Israeli film in 24 years to be nominated for a best foreign-language film Oscar. “Israel is saturated with drama,” he says of his country’s remarkable film renaissance, “so it’s natural that it’s reflected in our cinema.”
The filmmaker, who at age 6 moved to Israel from New York with his family, is well aware that taking advantage of the success of “Beaufort” is what allowed something as unusual as “Footnote” to move forward. “It was hard to see from the script where the story was going. I don’t think we would have been able to make it without the credit of the last film,” he says. “This film is one big risk. If people don’t like it, it’s OK, we took account of that in advance. It’s just a footnote.”
Though Cedar’s father, the celebrated scientist Haim Cedar, teaches at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, the filmmaker wasn’t initially familiar with that school’s Talmud department, the setting for his film. “But once I began hearing stories,” he says, “I fell in love with it.
“It’s known for being the smallest and toughest department at the university. There are stories of epic rivalries, of people being stubborn in a way that is concrete solid, where you don’t compromise on anything ever. These are people who have dedicated their lives to something esoteric, and they’ve done it with the drive of Julius Caesar.”
While on the one hand Cedar is happy about his film’s lighter elements (“I like to take every opportunity I have to shed some pathos; self-seriousness is the worst trait of a filmmaker”), he emphasizes as well that “Footnote” “touches on one of the most important things in life.”
That would be, he says, “the need for recognition, which is something you need to live, and the fact that to get it you may have to compromise your integrity. That’s something that I dread, and something that’s a big part of the relationship between individual Israelis and the Israeli establishment.
“You need it, but you feel shameful about it.”
That duality was strongly brought home to Cedar after “Beaufort” was nominated for an Oscar. “To be embraced by a country,” he says, “is not a little thing. And there is a price tag that comes with it.”
Which is part of why Cedar has come to see “Footnote” as “a strange film — there’s nothing you can do about that. If it was to everyone’s liking, there would be something too sweet about it. It’s a survival story, there’s a screech to it, and I stand behind that screech.”
To emphasize that point, Cedar talks about conversations he had while the film’s poster art was being planned. “One idea I had was to create an image from a boxing movie, ‘Raging Bull’ would have fit,” he says. “In boxing, everyone is comfortable saying, ‘I want to knock you out,’ but the further you get from sports, the harder that is for people to admit. What I’d really like is to get those intellectuals into a boxing ring.”