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Exploring self-expression through film

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It’s fitting that the storyline of the film, Call Me by Your Name, ends on the final night of Hanukkah. (That’s not a spoiler, don’t worry.) In one of the final scenes, the light is grey and dim, but the fireplace is ablaze, as Elio, the precocious 17-year-old prodigy who’s the lead character in this story of sexual self-awakening, breezes around the room, passing the eight lit candles on the family’s hanukkiah. While the world remains imperfect and sometimes cold, the holiday fills the house with a sense of hope and survival – and Call Me by Your Name is a triumph of both.

The film was released last fall, but is seeing renewed interest following its nomination for several Golden Globe Awards. The movie should catch your attention, as it’s the only significantly Jewish picture this awards season, and one of the best mainstream Jewish pictures of the last few years.
Based on a book of the same name, the film centres on Elio (played by Timothée Chalamet) and his progressive parents who are vacationing in Italy in the summer of 1983. The family is trilingual – they switch between English, French and Italian – and embody the kind of impossibly sophisticated, calm and erudite Jews who we rarely see onscreen. (What? A Jewish family with zero kvetching? Smiling, supportive parents? What’s going on here?)

In the opening scenes, we meet Oliver (played by Armie Hammer), a 24-year-old graduate student who’s helping Elio’s father, an archeologist (the ubiquitously reliable Michael Stuhlbarg). As soon as we see Oliver – and watch him move about confidently and gracefully – he reminds Elio of the Greek statues that his father studies. The way they’re so smoothly, perfectly sculpted, it’s “as if they’re daring you to desire them,” Elio’s dad says, and Elio certainly does. Oliver is comfortable, intelligent, charming, enviable – and also Jewish.

Whereas Elio’s family is more religiously closeted (“My mother says we are Jews of discretion,” Elio says), Oliver wears his religion proudly, in the form of a golden Magen David hanging around his neck. Elio admires Oliver’s brazen self-expression. “Besides my family, you’re probably the only other Jew in this town,” he tells Oliver. Their Judaism becomes the foundation for their relationship.

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The book’s author, André Aciman, grew up in Egypt, where he – like many Jews – hid his religion from the public. The historic similarities between Jews and homosexuals is clear, and central to the film’s premise. “Something is connecting them blood-wise,” Aciman said in an interview with Tablet magazine. Their heritage is more than just an icebreaker; it’s a core element of who they are.

Elio begins emulating Oliver, flirting with girls and tagging along with his father on archeological excursions. But while the film depicts the subtle power dynamics inherent in sexual chemistry – where one man is proud and confident, the other curious and confused – their sexuality inverses that.

In fact, Elio’s youth proves his strength. His naivete grants him a certain fearlessness, leading him to make the first moves, verbally and sexually. When Elio suggests, in a veiled way, that he’s attracted to Oliver, he gets brushed off. “We can’t talk about those kinds of things,” says Oliver, who has lived long enough to know the dangers of the real world.

And so the power dynamics shift. At one point, Oliver asks him to play a Bach song on the guitar; instead, Elio stops playing and tells Oliver to follow him with the assurance of his love, walking to a nearby piano to play even more versions of the song – none of which are the one Oliver wanted. Playfully frustrated, Oliver begins to leave when Elio plays the correct version: a soft, gentle melody that lures Oliver back in.

And before the film is done, Elio is wearing his own Magen David out in public. All thanks to Oliver, who helped him come out as who he really is.