might think Shimek’s parents would be proud to say “my son, the doctor,” but
not in this resolutely traditional Orthodox shtetl. To study medicine, he
essentially rejected their tight-knit community. Unfortunately, that also meant
turning his back on Buzya, the love of his life. He will return hoping to
rectify that mistake, but time marches on in Eva Neymann’s Song of Songs (trailer here), which screens during the 2016 New York Jewish Film Festival.
a several Sholem Aleichem short stories, Song
of Songs paints an almost naively nostalgic portrait of Russian shtetl
life, at a time pogrom concerns were never idle or baseless. Life went on
regardless. For young Shimek, this involved elaborately constructed fantasies
informed by Kabbalah, wherein Buzya was the princess and he was her
Shimek studies with the local rabbi, he only distinguishes himself with
discipline problems. It is almost inevitable that Shimek would leave for more
cosmopolitan pastures. Ironically, in his absence, Shimek’s parents adopt
Buzya, in spirit if not in law, arranging a much more suitable match for her
than their rebellious son.
terms of mise-en-scene, Song is
exceptionally accomplished. Production designers Gennadiy Popov and Ilya Iovu
make the wooden shtetl house look properly hardscrabble and strangely charming
in an old world kind of way. Cinematographer Rimmvydas Leipus duly lenses
everything with the glow of romanticized memory. To set the indefinable mood,
Neymann uses vintage popping and hissing records of Jewish recording artists,
including Jolson and Haifitz, who are not necessarily era-appropriate, but
still fit the tenor of the time.
problem is Neymann’s cast is practically just another set of props for her to manipulate.
Subtle and reserved performances can be a revelation, but here they are often
just quietly unobtrusive. We can one hundred percent believe these are the weathered,
reticent shtetl denizens, but they all leave us on the outside looking in.
of Songs is the sort of film you
respect rather than feel affection for. Nevertheless, its humanistic portrayal
of shtetl life arguably comes at an opportune moment. This is after all, a
Ukrainian film, arriving at a time when Russian propaganda would have the world
erroneously believe the nation is dominated by goose-stepping National
Socialists. Song of Songs is a
scrupulously classy, admirably literate production, but mere mortals may have
trouble fully embracing it when it screens twice this Thursday (11/21) at the Walter Reade Theater, as part of
this year’s NYJFF.
Labels: NYJFF '16, Sholem Aleichem, Ukrainian Film