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Cannes 2011: Israeli cinema tries to turn a corner

May 13, 2011 | 11:15 pm

Between the years 2007 and 2009, Israel was nominated for a foreign-language Oscar in three consecutive  years, a feat that since the turn of the millennium has been matched by only one other country, Germany, a place with a far deeper film industry and tradition.

The Israeli movies that were nominated -- "Beaufort," Waltz with Bashir" and "Ajami" -- couldn't have been more stylistically different. One is a realistic military chronicle, another is a dreamlike piece of animation and the third a neo-verite thriller told Rashomon-style. Yet there's one thing they had in common: all dealt with war and ideological division.

At the Cannes Film Festival on Friday night, an Israeli film premiered that's as far from politics as you can get (at least of the national kind). "Footnote," as its English translation has it, tells of two rival Talmud professors at Jerusalem's Hebrew University who also happen to be a father and son -- the elder is an embittered, borderline catatonic who has seen his life's work undone by a quirk of fate; the younger is a striver who has put professional satisfaction above pretty much all human concerns. 

The movie comes from Joseph Cedar, a former soldier and the man who started Israel's Oscar hot streak -- he directed "Beaufort" (more on him from my colleague Kenneth Turan shortly). You'd never know it from this movie, though; it's as far from the battlefield as you can get.

On one level, there's something reassuring whenever the cinema of an ideologically and ethnically riven country moves beyond politics. It took Germany three Oscar nominations and 12 years after the Nazis' surrender before the country was shortlisted for a film unrelated to World War I or World War II: "Arms and the Man," an adaptation of a George Bernard Shaw play. (It's worth noting that this phenomenon isn't always the fault of an awards body; war-torn countries tend to make films about, well, war.)

But on another level, the silence that can greet a non-political movie is cause for pessimism. I've no idea if "Footnote" can go on to generate the same interest as its political counterparts -- the distributor Sony Pictures Classics has bought the film and will attempt to give it the same award season ride as it did "Waltz with Bashir."

But after the media screenings Friday night, there wasn't quite the same buzz in the air as there was when "Bashir" premiered here three years ago. That movie went on to win a Golden Globe, generate widespread coverage and even draw a few million dollars in U.S. box office. "Footnote" could well be the "Arms and a Man" of Israel, the movie that finally gets it over the political hump. But it also could get caught in and prove a Catch-22: for a war-torn country to get its national cinema broad recognition, it must make a great non-political film. But to land in the public eye in the first place it needs to make a movie about politics.


Cannes 2011: A video examination, Part 2

Cannes 2011: Finally, the end of secrets on Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life

Cannes 2011: Sleeping Beauty has a disquieting effect on festival crowds

-- Steven Zeitchik in Cannes, France


Photo: "Footnote." Credit: Sony Pictures Classics