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Movie tells a stellar story of Jewish desire and discretion

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A scene from the movie Call Me by Your Name

One of this year’s best films is Call Me by Your Name, directed by Luca Guadagnino (A Bigger Splash). The lush drama, set in Italy circa 1983, observes the slowly budding romance between 17-year old Elio (Timothée Chalamet) and an American doctoral student, Oliver (Armie Hammer), who is visiting to work for Elio’s professor father.

The film has received mounds of deserved critical acclaim. It is considered a near-lock to receive a Best Picture nomination at the Academy Awards.

But amid the fawning over its superb performances, ravishing cinematography, and exploration of queer desire, some aspects of Call Me by Your Name have received less fanfare.

The film, a poignant examination of homosexual love, is also fascinating for the way it uses its characters’ Judaism to bring Elio and Oliver closer.

Call Me by Your Name, which opens in Toronto and Vancouver on Dec. 15 before expanding to more cities the following week, is an adaptation of a novel by André Aciman.
Aciman has written thoroughly about his experience growing up as a Sephardic Jew in Egypt. Call Me by Your Name is not autobiographical, but Jewish symbols play a key part.

One of the most obvious signifiers is Oliver’s Star of David necklace. In the film, Elio notices the American visitor wearing it in an early scene. Near the middle of the film, around the time his desire to Oliver is at its most palpable, Elio retrieves his own Star of David necklace.

This grappling with religious identity is left more to interior monologue in Aciman’s novel. Comparably, in the film adaptation, Elio is forthcoming about his Judaism, and we see him brandishing the same, previously hidden, religious icon for the latter half of the story.
The novel, told from Elio’s perspective, reveals how the character is drawn to Oliver through the jewelry. The teenager explains that the Star of David necklace “bound us and reminded me that, while everything else conspired to make us the two most dissimilar beings, this at least transcended all differences.”

In the same passage where Elio discusses Oliver’s necklace in the novel, he mentions a kinship with Oliver due to the two of them knowing what it feels like to “be the odd Jew out.” Elio and Oliver share a brief dialogue about their sense of otherness via their Judaism in one of the drama’s earliest scenes.

READ: THE MAGIC OF ISRAELI MOVIES

Many of the novel’s references to Jewish culture and religious practices come in the first half, as Elio and Oliver test the waters and try to figure out the affections of the other man. More than Aciman’s novel, the film (scripted by James Ivory) foregrounds the scenes of public bonding between the men, as they bike, drink, and go dancing.

As the young men spend their summer near a predominantly Christian town, the fact that both men are Jewish comes to signify their difference as well as feelings of kinship toward the other man. Similarly, their same-sex desire will mark their resistance and isolation. While Oliver and Elio adorn their necks with a Star of David, both are cautious about airing their romantic cravings for the other in public.

Similarly, although Elio’s surname (Perlman) gives away his heritage, the family considers themselves to be “Jews of
discretion.”

Michael Stuhlbarg, known for his portrayal of the troubled Larry Gopnik in A Serious Man, plays a very different kind of Jewish father here. As Mr. Perlman, Stuhlbarg is warm and wise, and delivers a speech that should resonate deeply with any viewer.

The film’s casting is also fitting: Chalamet is Jewish while Hammer has Jewish heritage on his father’s side. (His great-grandfather is Jewish business tycoon Armand Hammer.)
In the book, Elio refers to his feeling of elation to comprehend his own sexual feelings of being with Oliver as like the biblical scene when Jacob first kisses Rachel. Elio even refers to the Hebrew word galut, meaning exile, to explain what separation from Oliver would feel like.

That connection between desire and religious sanctity also comes in a scene from the novel where Elio smells and embraces Oliver’s pillow. He compares the unity he feels with Oliver’s scent to an experience at his synagogue, when an elderly man placed a tallis over his head, “and was now united with a nation that is forever dispersed.”

These literary sections, intertwining spiritual and sexual pleasure, do not have a direct onscreen equivalent. However, Call Me by Your Name does feature a rare sight: two men waking up in bed together, naked, with the exception of two gold Star of David necklaces.