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A Man Tries To Shed His Own National Identity And Adopt Another In 'Synonyms'

Oct 24, 2019
Originally published on October 24, 2019 8:29 pm
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A new movie called "Synonyms" has critics reaching for superlatives. Our own Bob Mondello has strong words of his own. He found the film surprising, startling, puzzling and eye-opening.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Yoav is a 20-something Israeli immigrant who we first see grabbing a hidden key under the mat of an elegant but empty Parisian apartment - inside, not a stick of furniture anywhere. And it's cold, so he strips nude and hops in the tub to take a hot shower. While in there, he hears a noise, comes running out to find the front door open and his clothes gone. Pounding on other apartment doors, he gets no answer.


TOM MERCIER: (As Yoav, speaking French).

MONDELLO: So he goes back to the apartment, shivering, and passes out. Hours later, a young couple notices the open door and finds him there.


LOUISE CHEVILLOTTE: (As Caroline, speaking French).

QUENTIN DOLMAIRE: (As Emile, speaking French).

MONDELLO: If Yoav seems a stereotype - hypermasculine Israeli soldier - these two are your basic, cute, young Parisians - rich, intellectual Emile, who's writing a book; stylish, sexy Caroline, who plays the oboe. They take Yoav on as a project, offering him clothes and cash and getting stories in return useful for Emile's book. Yoav's stories tend to be violent and improbable, as are the Parisian adventures he's about to have involving Israeli mercenaries, neo-Nazis, even modeling for sex tapes. Actor Tom Mercier is evidently comfortable with full-frontal nudity.

Through it all, Yoav is determined to become French. He refuses to speak Hebrew and uses a pocket dictionary to form stream-of-consciousness word strings. Why did he come to Paris, wonders Emile. Because, says Yoav, Israel is obscene, ignorant, idiotic.


MERCIER: (As Yoav, speaking French).

MONDELLO: Also sordid, grotesque, abominable, lamentable, detestable and on and on. Can't be all those things, says Emile. Choose.


DOLMAIRE: (As Emile, speaking French).

MONDELLO: This tale of a man determined to shed his own national identity and adopt another is based on the filmmaker's own experience. Israeli writer-director Nadav Lapid has said in interviews that he felt it was only by accident that he was born in the Middle East, that from an early age, he felt more attuned to European culture. The film's leading man, though, is not attuned. Yoav's time in France does nothing to diminish his rage about a world where his passport takes him only partway to belonging somewhere.

"Synonyms" comes across as a critique of borders and nations, a critique spiked with violence and also with an arresting scene shot last year in front of the then-intact Notre Dame Cathedral. Yoav looks up at a structure that appears to him solid, majestic, permanent - words, just words.

I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.