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Berlin 2019: Synonyms ★★★★★

A lyrical tragi-comedy full of unexpected twists and some contagiously exuberant dance scenes

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Director: Nadav Lapid

Stars: Tom Mercier, Quentin Dolmaire, Louise Chevillotte

Released: Berlin Film Festival 2019

Reviewer: Nadia Bee @Nadjabee

Words are the first line of defence against despair for Yoav, a young Israeli lost and naked in a wintry, cold Paris. Something has made him flee his home and his language. When he meets fellow Israelis, he answers them in fluent but at times archaic French. This is now his language, he says, refusing to speak Hebrew – and France will be his country. Cue a bittersweet, funny, at times utterly hilarious and surreal adventure. Yoav’s love of France is a love that has come out of books, with values frequently honoured in the breach. When he enunciates word after word – not exactly synonyms, but close – to describe what he abhors and wants to leave behind, his litany sounds beautiful, lyrical.

There’s a wonderful contradiction in this, which Yoav carries through in everything he does. But each time, he reaches a point when something breaks. He is a strapping young man, yet vulnerable. Early on, he is taken under the wing of hardy men, security staff at the Israeli embassy. They are eager to test their own physical courage, their ability to fight – at times in disconcerting but amusing scenes – yet they feel immensely protective of Yoav. And then Yoav blows it, beautifully. And he does this too, with his new friends, a bored French couple who finds themselves living through him, in a scenario that is reminiscent of Cocteau’s Les Enfants Terribles.

Yoav has a sweet innocence to him, and this is a paradox, because what he reveals of his past seems ruthless. When his father tracks him down and tries to get him to come back home, he asks him if he had been unhappy when serving in the army, and Yoav tells him softly that on the contrary, he enjoyed his time with the IDF rather too much. And it shows. In a flashback on a shooting range, where he plays a game and asks his comrades to guess what tune – Pink Martini’s Je ne veux pas travailler – is playing in his head, just from the firing rhythm of his machine gun.

Synonyms follows Nadav Lapid’s 2014 The Kindergarten Teacher, recently subjected to a remake with Maggie Gyllenhaal. It’s an oblique but devastating political critique, less directed at a particular country and rather at the idea of what constitutes a country and what it takes to belong  as a citizen.

This is a superb film and possibly the strongest contender for a Golden Bear at Berlinale 2019.

Film Critic, Docs Producer/Director, Writer.

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