I was initially drawn to this film as a critically acclaimed, very intelligent black comedy, which in the words of Roger Ebert:
‘is a merciless comedy, that is a study of human nature, that is deep and takes no prisoners’
It happens to be an Israeli film and was their 2011 Oscar nominated submission for Best Foreign language film.
Of all the countries to have been nominated for this Oscar category, Israel is the most under awarded: 10 nominations to date, without a single win, but enough of my cinephile trivia.
Way up the food chain
On the surface, the story is about 2 professors who happen to be father and son.
The protagonist father has dedicated most of his Academic career to the study of Talmud texts, cataloging and mapping the tiniest of differences – but alas without formal recognition due to an unfortunate technicality.
His son is a much lauded and prolific author of Talmud text books, who has enjoyed considerable commercial and Academic success.
In the opening few scenes, it looks like a simple story of father and son rivalry – while in fact it is used to set the scene for the real story.
HIgh functioning autism
There is often a very fine line between intellectual giftedness and high functioning autism – with considerable overlapping traits.
The autistic traits of the father were apparent to me right from the get go.
His singleminded quest to compile the Talmud in a form that is most faithful to the original, is the personification of the pursuit of a special interest.
A quest for knowledge for it’s own sake and as it’s own reward.
We learn that for 30 years, he walks to work (wearing sneakers and a suit) at the Israeli National Library, taking the exact same route every day, regardless of the weather.
He has an office at home, where he seems to spend all of his time, wearing bright yellow noise cancelling headphones and files everything and anything away in folders, with no apparent indexation system other than in his head.
But perhaps he’s just a quirkily genius, right?
The elephant in the room
While the autistic traits of the father were very obvious, at least to me, it didn’t overwhelm the unfolding story.
There is so much else going on.
We are given a glimpse of the legalistic egotism that handicaps much of the world of higher academia – delivered in the form of the mother of all ethical dilemmas, which feels like a vortex from which there is no escape.
The misdirection device is used to great effect, just before the pin prick punchline, that really shocked me.
The younger professor, perhaps in his late 40s, has an exchange with his own son, who is in his late teens.
He expresses concern and disappointment with his lack of ‘direction’ and focus.
Following this, the boys mother calmly suggests to her husband that the points he has just made with his son, would be better directed at his ‘Autistic father’, the elder professor!
I was shocked, so much so that I had to pause the film and pace around for a few minutes.
The tone of his wife gave no indication that the term autism was being used in the pop culture sense that ADHD and other terms are used.
She was clearly an intelligent woman in her own right, intellectual discourse being one of the pillars that in part defines her culture and indeed the history of her people. So I believe she was simply stating the obvious, albeit one that may previously been unspoken!
Wake up call
While I was pacing and trying to compose myself, I shed a few tears.
That scene could have easily been from my own life and I was reminded how easily ‘being autistic’ can be masked in those of us working in academia, the sciences, engineering, the traditional professions, anything in fact that allows and perhaps even requires our total absorption, high level focus and attention to detail.
I was also reminded that the autistic gifts, that can be channelled with powerful effect in the intellectually gifted, can carry a very high price.
A glimmer of Hope and a joy to behold
Just when I thought the film was entering it’s tragic finale, the film delivers an exhilarating sequence that had me utterly mesmerised.
The elder professor picks up on a tiny phrase, not even a handful of words and we are shown the cascading, fractal thought process of the autistic mind, well my mind at least.
I would encourage any parent of a gifted child with Aspergers to see this, because you will be looking inside your child’s mind and not only be able to see what they see, but feel how they feel.
I got an adrenalin rush just watching it and I am in the cascading, fractal thought A-team!
I also had a powerful feeling of catharsis – it was like I was being vindicated – reassured that I am not mad, that I am not alone and reminded of what a remarkable gift it is to be able to make multiple connections with the tiniest of details, served up from deep within my long term memory.
A moment of Zen.
I don’t know whether the writer/Director, Joseph Cedar deliberately set out to make an autism themed film.
There was more going on than ‘just’ autism, not least a brutally honest portrayal not just of Human nature, but also of the Culture which in large part defines him.
The film goes in hard and deep and takes no prisoners and it caught me completely off guard.
I need to see it again, with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight and I suspect for an even richer experience.
This is a rare film, that for me makes autism accessible to the non-autisitc population and will resonate especially powerfully with autistic people those whose intellect enables them to overcome, to some extent, the challenges of autism.