The squabbles of Talmudic scholars engaged in obscure debates over ancient texts would seem to be a subject with an extremely limited audience. But Joseph Cedar's story of father-son professors at Hebrew University of Jerusalem not only unearths universal themes from its arcane subject matter, but does it with a wry comedic touch and a deft sense of the absurdity of academic politics.
The film opens at a ceremony ushering Uriel Shkolnik (Lior Ashkenazi) into a prestigious academic society — one that has notoriously overlooked his father, Eliezer (Shlomo Bar-Aba). The initiation is one of many honors the gregarious son has accumulated that have eluded his sour, embittered father, whose perpetual frown refuses to even attempt to hide his jealousy. Cedar introduces the two characters with a series of arch devices, brief mock-doc diversions caricaturing Uriel's puffed-up self-absorption and his father's mania and misanthropy, tricks that threaten to overcompensate for the lofty subject matter with coy whimsy. But as complications set in, the conflicting emotions of their relationship take over and the tale becomes both messier and more engrossing.
Uriel's devotion to his neglectful father drives him to defy the establishment he's spent his career ingratiating himself to, culminating in a ridiculous meeting in a closet-sized room not big enough to hold the gathered bureaucracy, let alone its egos. Meanwhile, Eliezer swells with pride at the receipt of an honor he's spent years denigrating, the newfound attention prompting a mixture of unexpected giddiness and gall. While the elder Shkolnik takes the opportunity to essentially discount his son's achievements in public, the junior Shkolnik doggedly works behind the scenes to ensure that his father never discovers the award was a mistake. Each underestimates the other, as Eliezer's long-dormant textual expertise leads to an ambiguous finale, leaving both in a muddle of humility, public pride and contaminated self-esteem.