It was surely an accident that two new films, so different yet so eerily similar, were booked to open on the same weekend by local art houses. One is a fiction feature from Israel; the other is a documentary about a Tokyo sushi chef. The dissimilarities end there.
Both films feature an aging father and a middle-aged son, and both depict the lifelong obsession of the older man and the pitfalls of passing the torch to his heir. Viewers of one should consider seeing the other, and if I may make a recommendation about viewing order, I suggest seeing Footnote first. The Japanese film contains a development, which won't be revealed here, that packs a harder punch in light of the Israeli film, which was nominated for a best foreign film Oscar.
Footnote, written for the screen and directed by the New York-born and Israel-raised Joseph Cedar, is set in the pitiless, backstabbing world of advancement-hungry academics. Not just any academics, but those engaged in the arcane yet fiercely competitive world of Talmudic Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
We meet a father and son, Eliezer and Uriel Shkolnik, who are both well-known scholars. The elder Eliezer, however, has little to show for his lifetime of toil as a philologist documenting variations among competing versions of Talmudic texts. His life's project, which he believes would have altered contemporary understanding of the use of these legal commentaries that were produced about 1,500 years ago, was undermined in one fell swoop by a rival academic.
Now, he's a bitter, unrecognized old man clinging to his one claim to fame, being mentioned in a footnote in a book by his renowned mentor. And it's this bitter man (played by Shlomo Bar Aba, evoking the obstinacy of such method-era American actors as Karl Malden, Burt Young and Ben Gazzara) whom we see at the film's opening, watching his glib and much more famous son, Uriel, accept admission to the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities.
Uriel (played by Lior Ashkenazi, who used to be something like an Israeli Daniel Craig but is unrecognizable here behind his bearded, bearish mien) is an academic in the modern popular mode, moving between the academic and popular worlds with frequent public appearances and books that try to make Talmudic scholarship accessible and relevant to contemporary culture. As a result, his father doesn't take him seriously, a fact that stings the son, who grew up in awe of the "fortress" of culture and scholarship that his father erected around the family.
Cedar has assured control of his light-footed, slyly funny film—the rhythm, the humor, the music, the apposite use of a production of Fiddler on the Roof. Particularly effective are his repeated images of the surveillance society that Israel has apparently become: the checkpoints, wristbands and hostile young security guards who make Eliezer feel like a prisoner in his own country.
The father-son rivalry is of the archetypal sort that can be found in Freud, Sophocles and the Torah, and the chilly relationship between the two men is predicated on Uriel achieving far more renown than his supposedly more deserving father. These fissures aren't truly exposed until the day Eliezer, against the odds, wins the award he has quietly hungered for all of his life: the Israel Prize, the top award given to scholars. Unbeknownst to him, however, this development forces his son into a position where he must choose between his own ambitions and the perhaps undeserved advancement of his father's.
The film ends with a bravura set piece, rhythmically cut together and building to a tension between father and son, truth and justice. Among other things, we're sadly reminded that sometimes the work of a lifetime does not necessarily amount to much, especially when it comes at the expense of family.
Family and extreme obsessiveness are also among the themes of Jiro Dreams of Sushi, along with a father-son dynamic that is startlingly reminiscent of the one in Footnote. Jiro Ono is a legendary sushi chef, the octogenarian proprietor of Sukiyabashi Jiro, a 10-seat sushi joint located below ground level near a Tokyo subway station. In 2008, his establishment was awarded the exceedingly prestigious three-star rating from Michelin, which also made Jiro the oldest chef ever to achieve that distinction.
Jiro Dreams of Sushi is, first and foremost, unapologetic food porn (although a note of contrition comes late with an acknowledgment of the crisis in overfishing, partly because of the worldwide popularity of sushi, once a niche cuisine). It's also a compelling portrait of an imperious, accomplished and revered old man, and the effects he has on his children. Although first-time filmmaker David Gelb occasionally goes the sentimental route, displaying Jiro as something like a Yoda (or the Grinch, who he also resembles), there's more than a hint that the chef is something of a tyrannical patriarch.
It's unfair, perhaps, to pass judgment, for Jiro's childhood in prewar Japan was unimaginably harsh. Left to fend for himself at age 9, he began his cooking career at the mercy of abusive cooks. But learn to cook he did, and in the course of a 75-year career he became internationally famous. He also brought two sons into the business, overruling their stated desire to go to college.
The filial relationship that fascinates us is the one Jiro has with his elder son, Yoshikazu, who is still waiting, in his 50s, to fulfill his obligation to take over the restaurant. The younger man has little of his father's charisma, and we feel faintly sorry for him while a restaurant critic tells us how difficult it will be for him to maintain the restaurant's aura after his father leaves the scene. Nonetheless, there's a marvelously orchestrated revelation near the end that takes this documentary into its operatic finale (scored to, among others, Philip Glass), and one that makes this a fitting counterpoint to Footnote.
If you can spare the time, try making it a double feature this weekend.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Rising sons."