Eliezer Shkolnik (Shlomo Bar-Aba), the father, is the traditionalist who compares himself to an archaeologist combing through pot shards. He pores over evidence — so much so that he once spent 30 years pursuing a breakthrough that collapsed when a rival published first. Uriel Shkolnik (Lior Ashkenazi) is the successful, admired, cutting-edge son, the one who expounds on gender and culture and the de-feminization of the Jewish man. Uriel gets the accolades, the academy membership, the adoring looks from women. Eliezer’s biggest triumph is a footnote: his name in the masterwork of a revered scholar.
Israeli writer-director Joseph Cedar imbues his tale of academic maneuvering, misunderstanding and mystery with the zest of passion and the zing of intrigue, It’s a vivacious film, having its little fun with suspense-flick conventions (including Amit Poznansky’s bouncing score) that build to a climactic finish.
Its energy and eccentricity assert themselves in funky graphics, imaginative camerawork and everyday moments of awkwardness and absurdity. In a pivotal scene, people crowding a tiny room stand and rearrange their chairs each time someone opens the door to come or go. It’s one of many small but inspired comic touches that lightens the drama.
Cedar’s most recent film was 2007's Beaufort, a much grimmer, plainer piece of work that focused on Israeli soldiers entrenched in a mountain post in Lebanon. On the surface, not much links that film to this one, yet both train their sights on infighting in an airtight subculture that reveals larger issues of humanity and the truth.
Bar-Aba glowers magnificently, his compact form imploding with anger. Ashkenazi, his large, expressive eyes filled with anxiety or alarm, is a rough bear of an actor who transmits a piercing intellect and warmth. These two don’t look alike, but it’s easy work accepting them as a combative, complicated father and son. And it’s easy to see the passion they feel for the Talmud.