A paralyzed Pope and Talmudic thrills

Cannes discover an unlikely gem in Israel's 'Footnote'

Actor-director Nanni Moretti (left) and Michel Piccoli in 'Habamus Papam'

There’s a narrative flow to this festival, as if each of the 20 features in competition is the chapter of a secret novel. TIFF, which presents some 300 films, is a different animal. Most of the action is packed into the opening four or five days, as we are force-fed a glut of potential Oscar nominees. In Cannes, the momentum builds with a dramatic arc that spans the course of the festival. It’s a competition, after all. And, as in figure skating, some of the most potent contenders are often positioned near the end of the event, to leave the strongest impact on the jury. There’s a subtle thematic composition as well. Three films by women were front-loaded into the first two days—a tad patronizing perhaps, as if to dispense of them before getting down to the serious business of male auteurs—but they were all provocative, intriguing and oddly related.

Now it’s back to the male ego with a vengeance. Yesterday we saw two competition entries, from Italy and Israel, that both dealt with biblical orthodoxy and the burden of conferred glory.  Nanni Moretti’s Habemus Papam stars 85-year-old French legend Michel Piccoli as a cardinal who’s elected Pope and is paralyzed by performance before he can get to the window overlooking St. Peter’s Square.  Footnote (Hearat Shuylayim), by Israeli director Joseph Cedar is a tale of two Talmudic scholars, a father and son, whose rivalry is inflamed when one of them receives a major prize–I know, the premise sounds deadly, but it’s an exhilirating film, and the I’ve seen here that’s really excited me.

I’m a longtime Nanni Moretti fan. His Caro Diaro (1993) is one of my all-time favorites, and this comedian’s detour into drama, The Son’s Room, won the 2001 Palme D’Or for its raw portrait of a couple facing the death of a child.  Habemus Papam presents a delicious premise: the Pope who feels he’s unworthy for the job. And the movie has brilliant, hilarious and tender moments. Moretti casts himself as a non-believing shrink who tries to psychoanalyze the new Pope in the Vatican, with all the Cardinals watching. It’s such a delicious set-up that you’re dying to see that relationship take over the film. But then it would become The Pope’s Speech; not Moretti’s style. Instead, the Pope escapes into the streets of Rome, rides the bus incognito, and contemplates his failed ambitions as an actor. The film become The Old Man and the (Holy) See. And as the narrative takes some perverse turns, it’s almost willfully underwhelming.

Shlomo Bar Aba as the father in 'Footnote'

Footnote, on the other hand, makes magic from a more dubious premise. It’s hard to describe what’s so good about this Talmudic intrigue, the story of a purist father who resents his son’s success. But with stunning visuals, a  stabbing score reminiscent of Hitchcock composer Bernard Herrmann, and some devastating twists, there is nothing pedestrian about Footnote. Laced with comic irony, it has the kinetic thrust of a noir thriller, while plumbing the bottomless depths of parental conflict and the quicksand of moral relativism. It even adds some sly grace notes about Israel’s culture as an armed camp, with scenarios of high security at the gates of academe. Footnote unfolds like an O’Henry story on steroids, and is almost certain to win something before the festival is over.

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