Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Some films are so mad they scream. The films of Spike Lee are perhaps the most popular example of this, movies that are not content to simply tell you their message but rip you, bracingly from your daily life and yell your own ignorance back into your face, it’s what has made films like When the Levee Breaks and Do The Right Thing so durable, they shout from the rooftops and bring you down to Earth where others whisper and imply in an attempt to ease with ambiguity. Nadav Lepid’s Synonyms is a similarly loud and abrasive film, it’s not for the politically faint of heart, that is to say, if you do not like opinions that differ from your own, do not watch this film.
This film asks challenging and penetrating questions about the Israeli state, one many Americans in particular avoid asking themselves. We’ve been told for the sake of our morality, that we have a sympathy with the suffering of the oppressed Jewish people as a result of the holocaust and beyond. The affinity is not one of brotherly feeling of suffering, it is well known America has used the Israeli military state as an extension of its own powers in the middle east, leading to the continued subjugation of the Palestinian people and other Islamic nations. Synonyms reckons with the consequences of the modern Israeli state, following a brave young man escaping brainwashing (the draft) and the genuine temptation of his home life (familial love); whose rebellion lie in his ability to want to turn away from what he is, his history. Presented with the all-too human realization that we cannot destroy the thing we despise without first destroying ourselves, especially when the thing we desire so strongly to eradicate lives within us.
Much of the films strength is derived from it’s rambunctious lead performance, Tom Mercier as Yoav, an Israeli man, homeless in France, striving desperately to learn the French language so as (to borrow Heidegarrian language) “cover-over” his identity, abandoning the reality of his “I-self” in favor of a French “They-self”, falling prey to French love affairs, culture, and vocabulary. In escaping the “They-self” of the Israeli state: not accepting Judaism, refusing to speak in his native tongue, dodging the military draft, he abandons those things which he considers contrary to his values only to take up, in earnest ignorance, other hobbies that he will soon find do not lie outside his morals necessarily but do not fulfill him spiritually in quite the way he had anticipated.
The most provocative section consists of Yoav and an Israeli friend whom he met through work hitting the streets of France. Yoav “passes” for French as he is very pale and white, his friend has darker skin more outwardly “eastern” features to wandering French eyes. Since legislation was passed in 2004 freedom of religion is practicable in France but any visual presentations of religion: hijabs, crosses, yamakas, symbols of any denomination of faith are banned in public. His friend wears his kippah in public and on the train forces French people to look him in the eyes.
With the history of French Nazi collaboration and the present ban on public displays of religious affiliation for the purpose of increased “freedoms”, this moment despite featuring minimal dialogue, is absolutely shattering the comfortable shell of our complicity, asking questions of the audience that it’s perhaps never asked itself. How content can we be to shove religion into private sectors? Is our desire to escape their subduing, opiate-like effect really as strong as giving those who practice no other option than to be hidden and secretive. By his very existence in their society, Kippah and all, he himself is an audacious statement, asking of French citizens to look inward and attack their assumptions about freedom. The film accepts it’s own condemnations, asking tough questions about the government-states interaction with our rights both in France and within the specter of Israel that haunts Yoav’s mind as he wanders the streets of France.
This film is burning with rage, and most potently self-hatred. Yoav is a man constantly attempting to transcend himself, trying to lose himself in his intellectualism, his sex drive or his relationships. Instead he becomes more and more himself, the moment he puts on that yellow coat, he is helplessly him, an icon who longs for normalcy and beauty but whose time is one of ambiguity, listlessness and continuously depleted meaning. His attempt to find “synonyms” is evidence of his propulsion towards intelligibility, he longs to depict himself and the Israeli state as is, but when he does, he despises what he finds.
Movies that “are not for everyone” are lovingly defiant films, aware of their own shortcomings, warts and nastiness. The courage is frankly inspiring, if we were always willing to have uncomfortable, and incomplete conversations like the ones this film instigates, humanity just might be further along than we are now. The cinematography alternates between hazy, shaky-cam footage of the Paris streets, an exteriorization of the interior in Yoav’s tormented, conflicted mind and deliberately still long-takes that evoke such pillars of French art-cinema as Eric Rohmer and the more contemporary, Oliver Assayas. The juxtaposition between the aesthetic of Yoav’s mind and that of his world makes for an intriguing dichotomy, especially as Yoav wanders through his past: memories, political and personal feelings; much like Yoav, the style changes for France. If this movie does not provoke you, check your pulse, you might not be breathing.