Monday, December 23, 2019

Movie with Abe: The Song of Names

The Song of Names
Directed by François Girard
Released December 25, 2019

A childhood friendship can be enormously influential on a person, and in many cases it can lead to a lifelong relationship that continues through generations of descendants. Events don’t always allow things to go that way, and those who are close may be separated. A reunion years later could occur, though staying apart for that long seems less likely in today’s age of overly accessible social media. If someone has not been in another person’s life for a long time, the imprint of their memory may still be incredibly strong.

At age nine, Dovidl (Luke Doyle) is brought by his father from Warsaw to London in search of a teacher to train the talented young violinist. Gilbert (Stanley Townsend) offers to host the boy, who becomes friends with his son of the same age, Martin (Misha Handley). As the boys grow older, Dovidl (Jonah Hauer-King) grapples with his religious identity when he hears nothing of his family in the aftermath of the Holocaust, and Martin (Gerran Howell) tries to understand and support him. When Dovidl vanishes the same night he is supposed to perform a grand concert sponsored by Gilbert, an older Martin (Tim Roth) is still haunted by his disappearance decades later, prompting an international search for any trace of the long-lost adult Dovidl (Clive Owen).

This film makes masterful use of three separate casts, described by director François Girard as two vertical trios and three horizontal duos. Girard explains that he took care to have them “contaminate” each other while ensuring that they didn’t explicitly watch the filmed work another set had done. It’s an effective choice, one that helps to convey the development of the friendship between these two boys, initially uninterested in each other and eventually so close that they share something deeper than with anyone else. The elder Martin’s quest to find his old friend, expanded from a mere six pages in Norman Lebrecht’s novel of the same name, serves as a fitting frame for this film, one that lives only in Martin’s mind because of the great distance that has grown between them.

Girard emphasizes that this is a film about memory, in part because we “live in a world that is deeply amnesiac, where we are sucked into little screens, which make us captive to the present in an intense way.” Cinema, he believes, is a tool to escape that. This film presents a different angle to the Holocaust, one that doesn’t address it straight on, but instead looks at how being separated from his family affects Dovidl, and how Martin responds to it. That sense of loss permeates the entire film and guides it as Dovidl retreats into his music and Martin searches through his memories to find comfort.

Girard stresses the importance of music, and the genesis of cinema from its predecessor, opera. He enjoyed working with composer Howard Shore, who found ways to connect to his own Jewish heritage in the creation of the music for this film. As director of “The Red Violin” and other music-centric films, as well as a handful of operas, Girard is no stranger to music as a vehicle for storytelling, and this film does that strongly. Its assemblage of strong acting talent in each time period contributes to a deeply affecting film, one that packs a powerful emotional punch with plenty to say about the importance of the journey as well as the destination.


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