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Tom Mercier and Louise Chevillotte in “Synonyms,” which is set in Paris. Courtesy of Kino Lorber
Tom Mercier and Louise Chevillotte in “Synonyms,” which is set in Paris. Courtesy of Kino Lorber

Israeli Filmmaker’s Edgy ‘Synonyms’ Stands Out As True Disruptor At NYFF

But it’s just one of the stellar, Jewish-themed films to be screened at the annual festival.

George Robinson covers film and music for The Jewish Week.

Incipient madness. Junior-varsity terrorism. A celebration of New York City as it was six decades ago. Not to mention new films by Martin Scorsese, Noah Baumbach and Pedro Almodovar and a valedictory work from Agnes Varda.

Just another quiet New York Film Festival. Now in its 57th year as a purveyor of good things cinematic, the festival has experienced almost exponential growth in the past decade as the Film Society of Lincoln Center acquired multiple new screening spaces. At a time when the event was beginning to look a bit like a dinosaur, the added venues allowed the Film Society to add inventive new programs focusing on documentary, avant-garde film and a wide range of new media that redefine the term “moving image art.”

That said, for Jewish Week readers, the focus is probably still on feature films, and this year’s festival includes memorable entries from a rising Israeli talent, an eminent brother team from Belgium and a local boy who makes good (films, that is).

At a time when Israeli film has become edgier and more challenging than ever, Nadav Lapid stands out as a true disruptor. His first two films, “Policeman” and “The Kindergarten Teacher,” were memorable portraits of unstable personalities unraveling under pressure, depicted with a dry, gimlet-eyed humor. Each film was an inversion of familiar narrative tropes. “Policeman” depicted the collision of implacable foes, terrorists vs. counter-terror elite cops. “Kindergarten” played havoc with the stale tale of the dedicated teacher who discovers a child prodigy, gradually turning the anodyne feel-good narrative into a scary tale of obsession and craziness.

 

What could he do for an encore?

“Synonyms,” his third film, continues Lapid’s fascination with destabilizing egos edging into insanity, but this time it’s very personal. Based on events from his own life, the writer-director presents us with a portrait of a disaffected Israeli émigré, Yoav (Tom Mercier), who had come to Paris to escape from what he sees as the breakdown of his country’s social fabric. Almost immediately he is robbed of all his possessions and manages to lock himself out of the apartment in which he is staying, while stark naked. He is rescued by an eccentric young couple, Emile (Quentin Domaire) and Caroline (Louise Chevillotte), and becomes entangled in their unusual lives.

Tom Mercier in a scene from Nadav Lapid’s “Synonyms”. Courtesy of Kino Lorber

Lapid parcels out plot points sparingly, using flashbacks that suggest that Yoav is a decorated combat veteran and the son of a prominent military man. We gradually learn that Emile is a disillusioned son of a rich manufacturer, Caroline an oboeist with a chamber ensemble. But none of this information prepares us for or explains Yoav’s dependence on them or his slow-burning crack-up.

The clue is in the film’s title. Yoav has chosen to eschew Hebrew — even in a conversation late in the film with his father — speaking a surprisingly decent French but falling back on a dictionary for assistance. Like the central figures in Lapid’s previous films, the gradual toll of loss of language can only lead to emotional paralysis. It’s a cunning conceit and one that Lapid works through with real skill. The result is troubling, drily funny and provocative.


 

Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne are among the finest practitioners of a sort of contemporary global neorealism that has become the default setting for smart, low-budget independent films. Working on location in one of the less prepossessing parts of their native Belgium, the brothers have made a series of consistently incisive portraits of ordinary people withstanding the pressures of life in an increasingly bleak neoliberal Europe; they are films about working people whose jobs and lives are under constant threat.

Their latest film, “Young Ahmed,” continues in that vein, exploring the tensions affecting the eponymous sweetly awkward tweener (Idi Ben Addi) who is being sucked into the internal struggles of the local Muslim community. Torn between his imam, who also employs the boy in his grocery store, and a liberal Muslim woman who runs a local learning center which has benefited Ahmed quite directly, the boy tips over into an act of violence. As is their wont, the Dardennes show that moment elliptically, the bracing hand-held camera work deliberately obscuring the action while forcing us to concentrate on the particpants’ reaction.

Ultimately, the drama plays itself out a bit predictably and, as a result, this is not on a par with their best work (“The Son” and “The Promise” come to mind). But “Young Ahmed” is a surprisingly sweet film, given the subject matter, and effective on its own terms.


 

Between 1958 and the early ’60s, Manfred Kirchheimer and Walter Hess shot a wealth of 16mm footage of New York City street life. Now, some 60 years later, Kirchheimer has edited that footage, beautifully restored and digitized, into “Free Time,” a lyrical paean to a seemingly vanished city, rhythmically graceful and highly evocative. Sumptuous black-and-white images of kids playing stickball in the street, older men and women sitting in lawn chairs on the sidewalk, demolition crews at work downtown, people just hanging out in the summer heat, all contribute to a sense of leisure that the city has long since sacrificed for the maddening pace that we all know and loathe.

Although the film lacks the narrative frame of Kirchheimer’s “We Were So Beloved,” his portrait of the Jews of Washington Heights, “Free Time” is an elegant return to the “city symphony” subgenre of documentary, a form that he has explored with great elan on several occasions. Indeed, one might characterize Kirchheimer as the poet laureate of New York in transition, a gifted delineator of the city’s semipermeable boundaries. Anyone who has ever loved New York City will take pleasure in this hour-long visual tone poem.

The 57th annual New York Film Festival, presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center, runs Sept. 27-Oct. 13 at Lincoln Center. For information, go to filmlinc.org/nyff2019.

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