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Israeli drama nominated for foreign-language Oscar

No Israeli film has ever won an Oscar, but Israeli director Joseph Cedar and many of his fellow citizens are hoping that will change now that “Footnote” has been nominated for an Academy Award as best foreign-language film.

Cedar, 43, is on a pretty good run: He has made four movies in his 11-year career, and all four represented his country at the Academy Awards. One of them, 2007’s “Beaufort,” made the final cut to become one of the five official nominees, but it did not receive a golden statuette.

“Footnote” centers on the rivalry between two talmudic scholars who also are father and son. Though it’s a sharp contrast from “Beaufort,” a war film with an anti-war message, it offers more tension per frame than a gun-toting action picture.

Both Eliezer and Uriel Shkolnik are shining lights in the department of talmudic studies of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where rivalries are fierce. To the two Shkolnik philologists, the stakes in their lifelong studies of the authenticity and meaning of each word in different talmudic versions and editions are far higher than the struggles of warring countries or the rise and fall of national economies.

“Footnote,” the Oscar-nominated Israeli film, centers on the rivalry between two talmudic scholars, who also are father and son. photo/jta/sony pictures classics

The director, a New York native and the son of renowned Hebrew University biochemist Howard Cedar, firmly rejects the assumption that the protagonists resemble his family or their relationships.

“The film’s talmudists in no way represent my father and myself,” said the younger Cedar, who as an Orthodox Jew is a rarity among Tel Aviv filmmakers. “Actually, their relationship is my nightmare, not my reality.”

Yet “Footnote” explores the balance between uncompromising honesty and family relationships.

“What if my son becomes a more successful director than I am, but makes movies that I hate?” asks Cedar, who explored the gulf between observant and secular Israelis in his first two films, “In Time of Favor” and “Campfire.” “Will I tell him how I really feel, or preserve family harmony?”

On a national scale, the insistence on one’s absolute truth contributes to civic violence in Israel, Cedar believes. “We now have a generation that considers ‘compromise’ a bad word, and social harmony has been taken hostage by people who claim to know the absolute truth,” he said.

“Footnote,” which opens March 16 in the Bay Area, was awarded the top prize for best screenplay at the Cannes Film Festival, and in the United States the National Board of Reviews of Motion Pictures placed the film among the five top foreign-language features.

A second Jewish-themed film will join “Footnote” in the foreign-language category, Poland’s “In Darkness,” based on a true incident in Nazi-occupied Poland.

The movie’s settings and emotions are as lightless as the underground sewers of Lvov, where a dozen Jewish men, women and children hid for 14 months during the German occupation of Poland. Their unlikely protector was a rough-hewn Polish sewage worker and part-time thief who knew all the hiding places in the underground system — it’s where he worked and stashed his loot.

At the helm of “In Darkness” is the superb Polish director Agnieszka Holland (“Europa Europa”), whose forte is to delineate the shades of the human character. As in her other works, the strengths and weakness of the victims, heroes, villains and bystanders vary with time and circumstance.

“I have always been intrigued by the contradictions and extremes in human nature,” she said in a phone interview. “I wonder at how fragile and how strong we are, how evil and irrational under some conditions, and how brave and compassionate at other times.”

The Oscar competition in the foreign-language category is tough. In both the United States and Europe, the critics’ favorite is the Iranian entry, “A Separation,” which has won a string of awards at international film festivals.

The film by Asghar Farhadi masterfully combines an easily recognizable situation — an impending divorce in an upper-middle-class family — with the strange atmosphere, pieties and judicial proceedings of an unfamiliar society.

In other Oscar categories, nods were given to Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris” (directing, best original screenplay, best picture), Steven Spielberg’s “War Horse” (directing, best picture) and “Moneyball” (Aaron Sorkin for best adapted screenplay). Other nominated Jewish filmmakers were producers Stephen Tenenbaum and Letty Aronson (“Midnight in Paris”) and Rachael Horovitz (“Moneyball”).

The Oscars will be presented Feb. 26.

Tom Tugend

JTA Los Angeles correspondent