I have always been fascinated by the importance of parent/child relationships in Shakespeare. As school children, one of the first plays we read is Romeo and Juliet and aside from the love story, the second major story is Juliet’s relationship with her parents. The mother is cold and aloof and the father, while seemingly sensible in the beginning, shows himself an insensitive brute. Then there is Hamlet–a psychiatrist’s field-guide to dysfunctional parenting. In the histories, there is Henry IV, parts 1 and 2; the tragedies also give us King Lear–a tragedy of parenting if ever there were one; the romances give us The Tempest with the sorcerer Prospero manipulating his daughter’s–and everyone else’s–life. Throughout the canon, there are lovers blocked by parents, young nobles obeying the edicts of fathers, and even a childless woman declaring what violence she would wreak on her children if she had them.
And then I thought how much all of literature is tied in with this theme. From the earliest fairy-tales like Snow White, Cinderella, and Rumpelstiltskin to the Greek plays–where does one begin with Oedipus?–the dynamic between parent and child is in the foreground. As for the great epics: The Odyssey is really a tale of a son trying to find his father, as is its modern counterpoint, Ulysses,where “fatherless” Stephen is cared for by Bloom who mourns the death of his own infant son; and what is Paradise Lost but a father punishing his errant children? In Great Expectations Pip is orphaned and raised by a beastly sister and her kind and understanding husband. In Huck Finn, Huck is trying to survive in spite of the obstacles that the disreputable Pap has put in his way. And even a modern potboiler like the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy is founded on several perverse father/child relationships.
So I thought of all of this as I left the theater Sunday after watching The Footnote. An Israeli film, The Footnote follows a father and son, both Talmudic scholars through their strained relationship. The father’s career–rightly or wrongly–stalled early in its course. The son, on the other hand, is immensely successful. The film opens with an award ceremony where the son is being inducted into the Academy of Sciences. In his thank-you speech, the son focuses on what an inspiration and model his father was, but the father is so filled with envy, anger, and bile that he walks out of the theater.
Later, the father receives a telephone call informing him that he has won the prestigious Israeli Prize, an award given by the President of Israel to an important scholar. The call is actually a mistake and was intended for the son who naturally has the same last name. The son is informed of the mistake and told that he must be the one to tell his father. What ensues is riveting, heartwrenching, and sad.
The soured relationship between the two is echoed with the son’s strained relationship with his own adolescent child. At times, it seems the women are holding things in place, but I am not completely sure. There is a lot of dishonesty, a terrible lack of communication, and an underlying egoism that is poisoning the family dynamic.
The film is very good. It is one of those films that you talk about long after, and think about much longer than that.