I recently saw the Israeli film, Footnote, which was nominated for best foreign film in last year’s Oscars. It reminded me of a movie from the 90s that I thoroughly enjoyed, called Big Night. In both films we encounter a character who is committed to the truth of his craft.
In Footnote we meet the elder Prof. Eliezer Shkolnik, a philoligist whose painstaking, scholarly analysis of words in the Talmud led him to discover that the current version of the Talmud differs from the one that was in common use centuries ago. Before he can publish his findings, he is scooped by a competing scholar who stumbles upon an ancient copy of the Talmud in an archive, thus proving the same point without the careful scholarship. Eclipsed by this chance discovery, Prof. Eliezer Shkolnik, toils away in obscurity, bitter that his dedication to his craft remains unrecognized while flashy, lucky, and shallow scholars earn the laurels he believes he should be receiving.
One of those flashy, lucky, shallow scholars is Prof. Eliezer Shkolnik’s son, Prof. Uriel Shkolnik, who writes popular books about the Talmud and is a celebrity on TV and the lecture circuit (only in Israel could a Talmudic scholar be a celebrity, but think of him as an Israeli version of Malcolm Gladwell). The simmering animosity and resentment between the elder and younger Prof. Shkolnik boils into a crisis when the father accidentally receives a prestigious award that was meant to be given to the son. The father falsely believes that he has finally been recognized for his commitment to the truth of his craft and the son, who lacks his father’s zealous pursuit of the truth, would rather engineer a falsehood to save his father’s honor than take the prize himself.
Besides the painfully (and hilariously) accurate depiction of the pettiness and self-importance of much of academia, the movie raises difficult questions about how important the pursuit of truth really is. Is it more important than family, harmony, or love?
The movie Big Night raised very similar questions. Two brothers, Primo and Secondo, own an Italian restaurant that is completely committed to the truth of their craft. The only problem is that they have no customers. People don’t seem to appreciate the truth. Watch this perfect scene in which a rare customer wants a side of pasta with her risotto to see the tension between giving the customer what she wants and remaining committed to the truth of their craft:
Meanwhile a competing Italian restaurant owner, Pascal, violates every truth of Italian cuisine but his restaurant is packed with customers. He’s flashy and crude, but the customers seem to love it. Pascal offers to help Primo and Secondo by bringing a celebrity to their restaurant for a Big Night, which he promises will put their place on the map. The brothers pour every cent they have and all of their craft into the Big Night, but when the celebrity doesn’t show they are ruined. Their hopes are raised and they throw the best party with the best Italian food, hoping to remain true to their craftwhile also succeeding, but then they are left with nothing — or nothing except the truth of their craft and the love of each other. This is the morning after their Big Night. (It’s long and without dialogue, but watch the whole thing since it’s incredibly powerful and touching, at least it was after seeing the whole movie):
After watching Big Night I was persuaded that remaining true to one’s craft was of primary importance. Remaining true may cost us dearly, but it is all that we have. After watching Footnote I’m not so sure about this anymore. Truth at the expense of all else can be incredibly destructive. In Big Night they kept both truth and love. In Footnote truth comes at the expense of love. Maybe it is love that is of greater importance. Or maybe the singular pursuit of any virtue is dangerous. We need truth and love, but neither completely.