Acclaimed Quebec director François Girard, whose film The Red Violin won an Academy Award 20 years ago, has, at long last, made another meditative movie with a classical music leitmotif and historical theme.
The soon-to-be-released The Song of Names is about an Orthodox Jewish boy in prewar Poland who plays the violin and is thought to be a prodigy. David Eli Rapoport never realizes his professional potential because of the Holocaust, which he escapes physically but not emotionally.
Based on Norman Lebrecht’s award-winning novel of the same name, The Song of Names is gorgeous to look at, as well as to listen to thanks to an original score by veteran Canadian composer Howard Shore.
The convoluted plot, however, detracts from what is otherwise a thoughtful portrayal of the impact of the Shoah on one person and those who had hoped to give him a chance to overcome the tragedy he’d been dealt early in life.
What begins as a poignant story about an unlikely childhood friendship forged amid the chaos of war turns into a thriller with implausible twists and turns, in the race to solve a 35-year-old mystery.
The story starts just before the war begins. David’s father is anxious to get him out of Poland. Gerald Simmonds, a wealthy non-Jewish English concert producer, gladly offers to take the nine-year-old boy into his London home. David leaves Warsaw, never to see his parents and two sisters again.
Simmonds has one son, Martin, who is the same age. Initially, the English boy resents the foreign intruder in his home.
Their personalities clash: David (Clive Owen) is cocky and feels entitled; Martin (Tim Roth) is already a bit stuffy, but reliable and upright. The young actors who play them do an admirable job.
The movie then moves to 1951, when David is scheduled to give his debut concert, organized by the elder Simmonds, before the upper crust of London society.
The mercurial violinist is a no-show, much to the heartbreak of Simmonds, who treated the boy as a favourite son, providing him with top-notch musical instruction and a solid Jewish education. For his bar mitzvah, he bought David a rare 1735 Italian violin, which would be a clue to his whereabouts decades later.
The loss of his family and the destruction of European Jewry had turned David into an angry, self-absorbed young man. He was obsessed with commemorating those who perished through his music. Yet he theatrically renounced Judaism in an empty synagogue before a gob-smacked Martin.
Thirty-five years on, Martin, now a music competition judge, still wonders what happened to David. One day, he notices a young competitor rosining his bow and then kissing the block like David did. This convinces Martin to go on an international quest to find him.
The film follows Martin as he travels to Warsaw, where David returned in 1952. The title refers to a piece David composes to remember those who died in the Holocaust. David’s parents’ and sisters’ deaths were confirmed to him when, by chance, just before he was to play the piece in concert, he entered a London synagogue and heard the names of those killed in Treblinka recited. He then returns to the site of that death camp to play his lamentation.
David, who eventually settles in New York, is long gone from Poland by the time Martin gets there. Following a trail left by David’s violin, Martin is finally reunited with a man who’s very different from the teenager who tore up his tallit in front of him so long ago. Now it is the emotionally restrained Martin who is furious at David, whom he obviously still loves as a brother. He has not forgiven David for his lack of gratitude towards his father, who he ultimately betrayed and humiliated.
It will take something extraordinary for them to reconcile. David acknowledges a debt that is 35 years overdue, but he is just as proud and wilful as he was as a boy, and repays it on his own terms. For his part, Martin starts to understand that he owes David, too, as he’s never fully appreciated what it meant to be a Jew after the Shoah.
The Song of Names had its world première at the Toronto International Film Festival in September and was screened at Montreal’s Festival du Nouveau Cinéma in October. It opens in theatres on Dec. 25.