Matters of the soul

Nadav Lapid’s Golden Bear-winning film is personal, soulful and confrontational in all the best ways.

In May 2014, Cahiers du cinéma released its 700th edition. In celebration, the editors wanted to get to the heart of cinema’s power. “What is cinema?” Godard once asked Samuel Fuller. “In one word, emotion.” So, they invited hundreds of filmmakers, actors and philosophers to submit a moment or a film that inspired them in one way or another, creating “a journal of intimate emotions.” Lea Seydoux describes uncontrollable crying after watching Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises; Ben Safdie is moved by the familiarity of the clanking noise of metal on metal from Bresson’s A Man Escaped; and Willem Dafoe created a collage of faces that included Frankenstein, Mastroianni, Sydow and Monroe. 

Among them was young filmmaker Nadav Lapid. In 2014 he had only made one feature film, Policeman and his next, The Kindergarten Teacher was to be released that month at Cannes. He chose Teorema by Pasoli, a movie he saw in a moment of “great solitude in Paris,” where he had recently moved after serving in the Israeli army. Pasolini’s film about a mysterious stranger who disrupts lives would inspire him to take up filmmaking and left him in such a daze that he’d snap out of it only hours later at an unfamiliar metro station scratching at a map of Paris. He missed the last train and had to walk home in the dark of night.

Lapid’s latest film, Synonyms, is also about a mysterious stranger. Yoav arrives in Paris after serving in the Israeli army. For his first night, he settles in a large and empty Parisian apartment and wakes up cold, alone and freezing, his clothes and all his possessions having been stolen. He races through the apartment, naked and screaming. He almost freezes to death in the heart of the city before two curious neighbours find him and take him under their wing. 

From the onset, Yoav is unusual. He refuses to speak anything but French and insists he will never speak Hebrew again. Inspired by his new friends, he decides he wants to be a writer and spends his free time reading from the dictionary, memorizing synonyms that he works into his conversation. Much like Terence Stamp in Teorema, he is the mysterious stranger. His presence initiates storytelling and tension, unveiling disruptive truths about his new friends’ lives and life in France.

Language and words take on incredible power in the film, tied irreparably to identity. Yoav’s past is unknown throughout most of the film, but his desire to cut himself off from his native language hints at his feelings towards his native land. Lapid’s film explores the limits and freedoms of language. The same words arranged under different circumstances can be poetry or law. If poetry can be radical and confrontational, vulgar in its refusal to adhere to the concrete, the law can use the guise of tenderness — such as the shackles of marriage vows to entrap and enslave. 

Each language has its peculiarities and imposes a way of seeing the world. As someone who does not speak Hebrew, I’m not about to make assumptions on what that is, because I can’t experience it. Even if I were to learn Hebrew now, I wouldn’t be formed and shaped by that power in the same way as my native languages. I’d even question whether English or French as a form of cultural identity could have the same impact as Hebrew to someone growing up in Israel. What is clear, though, is that even as Yoav tries to sever ties with the power of his language and the culture it brings, it might not be possible. Even more so than his passport, it is the language that defines his national identity. 

Even the nature of cinematic language is examined here as Synonyms treats montage as a kind of poetic grammar. It is not soft and quiet, but confrontational. The film isn’t without its ugliness and reflections on how war can disrupt and corrupt. The film’s edits emphasize through stark contrasts how violence seeps its way into life and threatens to disrupt beauty and love. The editing pushes us to the limit before drawing us back in. We have to be flung out into space before we can be drawn in again, closer and more intimate than before. The risk is always that we will be pushed too far and lose our way back. Without that risk, though, there is no hope for revelation. 

In an era where so few films concern matters of the soul, Synonyms feels radical. It is a probing and challenging film that inquires into the souls of individuals but also nations. There is the natural charisma of Yoav and his disruptive naivety. He embraces the world almost as a child, and in his innocence, he perceives the real rather than the propagandistic identity of the two countries he finds himself torn between. 

In one of Synonyms’ best scenes, he attends a French civics class where an enthusiastic teacher explains the importance of laicity (the separation of Church and State) before asking a member of the class to sing La Marseillaise. Yoav volunteers and delivers a passionate militaristic rendition of the anthem. It is a pivotal moment that reflects on how passively we engage with the language that defines us and our identities.

For all its theoretical musings, though, Synonyms is a film of great yearning, vulnerability and spontaneity. A lot of this energy is owed to Tom Mercier, making his feature-film debut, who is a force of nature. There is a tenderness in the fact that Mercier seems like a Grecian statue come to life, his very presence an antidote for harsh lines drawn in the sand. He has suppleness to his body and spirit that invites so much laughter and beauty into the film. 

Writing for the Cahiers du cinéma, Lapid chose the primal scream that closes Teorema as his cinematic emotion. It’s a moment of unexpected truth, the naked patriarch running through the desert to the camera. What does it mean? Why does he do it? The film doesn’t have to answer why it serves to ask the question. Synonyms is a film that is open-ended and demonstrates profound curiosity in the ways of being. It is a film that is occasionally frustrating, refusing to be comfortable, but is infinitely rewarding as a result. ■

Synonymes opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, Jan. 10. Watch the trailer here: