THE SONG OF NAMES (2019)

January 9, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. The title refers to a sacred Jewish ritual where the names of the Holocaust victims are recited in a musical style. It’s a process that (sadly) covers a few days. In this film, it takes on a personal, as well as historical, significance. British cultural affairs expert Norman Lebrecht wrote the 2001 novel on which writer-director Francois Girard (THE RED VIOLIN, 1998, plus plays, operas and 2 Cirque de Soleil shows) and co-writer Jeffrey Caine based the film.

We open in 1951 London just minutes before the scheduled performance of young violin virtuoso Dovidl “David” Rapoport. He is to play Bruch and Bach in a concert sponsored by his “adoptive” father figure Gilbert Simmonds, who has sunk his entire life savings into producing the concert. Despite the assurances of Simmonds’ son Martin, who has become like a brother to David, the featured performer is a no-show … leading Martin to search for him over the next 35 years.

The film covers the story from the time Dovidl’s Polish-Jewish father (played by Jakub Kotynski) agrees to his leave 9 year old, a violin prodigy, with the non-Jewish Simmonds in an attempt to protect the boy from the German invasion of Poland in the late 1930’s. As Dovidl and Martin grow together, their bond become stronger. Martin is present when Dovidl renounces Judaism, even as becomes more proficient with his instrument and more saddened by the Holocaust that he avoided in his home country.

Both boys are played at three different ages by three different actors. Dovidl is played by Luke Doyle at ages 9-13, Jonah Hauer-King at ages 17-23, and by Clive Owen in middle age. Martin is played by Misha Handley at ages 9-13, Gerran Howell at ages 17-23, and by Tim Roth in later life. The actors do a good job of capturing Martin’s early irritation at Dovidl’s arrogance, the shock of the no-show betrayal, and the later in life man who changed everything when he found out about his family, as well as the music teacher so desperate to find his long lost friend/brother.

The film bounces between the three timelines so that we have a full picture of the impact they have had on each other’s lives, and how Dovidl’s disappearing act was quite devastating. Much of the film centers on Martin tracking down leads and talking to folks for some idea of the path taken by Dovidl. Mr. Roth is especially effective (and surprisingly understated) in his performance as a man haunted by the unexplained actions of a loved one. His wife, played by Catherine McCormack, is simultaneously understanding, patient, and emotionally affected.

Stanley Townsend plays Martin’s father. He cares for Dovidl as if her were a son, and provides what’s necessary for the prodigy to develop and be groomed for performance. Three-time Oscar winner Howard Shore delivers a score that follows the good times and bad, not an easy task for a family drama within the shadow of the Holocaust. One specific sequence stands out, and it is filmed on the hallowed grounds of Treblinka – now a memorial, where the extermination camp once stood.

There are many facets to the story, and most involve heavy emotions. We see children bearing more than they should. Parents protecting their children in times of crisis. The difference between religion and ethnicity is discussed. Broken trust proves especially damaging. Dovidl’s disappearing act could be compared to that of JD Salinger, in that he seemingly vanished for years. And maybe most of all, the idea of survivor’s guilt is a theme, as Dovidl explains, “You don’t have to be guilty to feel guilty.” The film may have some pacing issues, but it affords such a wealth of conversation topics, that any flaws are easily forgiven.

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ASHES IN THE SNOW (2019)

January 10, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Most World War II films focus on the atrocities committed by Hitler’s German forces, but this adaptation of Ruta Sepetys’ novel (“Between Shades of Gray”) reminds us of the evils under Stalin and the Russian seizure of the Baltic States. Director Marius A Markevicius delivers a feature film debut that is both historical drama and tale of human perseverance.

We have long since been educated on just how cruel humans can and have been to other humans, and director Markevicius – with a script from Ben York Jones (LIKE CRAZY, 2011) – doesn’t shy away from the cruelty or atrocities, but he and cinematographer Ramunus Greicius capture the harshness and brutality of the Siberian environment, as well as the brief moments when those being held captive feel sparks of life.

Bel Powley (THE DIARY OF A TEENAGE GIRL, 2015) stars as Lina, a young Lithuanian artist who lives with her family: mother Elena (Lisa Loven Kongsli, FORCE MAJEUR) and brother Jonas (Tom Sweet). The father/husband is played by Sam Hazeldine and we learn of his secret agenda and activism later in the film. When Russian troops forcibly remove mother and the two kids from their home, a long train ride ends with their working the fields in the Altai Labor Camp in Siberia.

Martin Wallstrom is excellent as Kretzky, a conflicted Russian soldier from the Ukraine. He’s kind of persona non-grata on both sides, and as an outsider to the troops and the “devil” to the prisoners, he is somewhat of a sympathetic character. A year later (1942), the family and Officer Kretzky are shipped off to Laptev Sea in the Arctic Circle. This frozen tundra is no place for human beings and death seems preferable to freezing in misery. When giving the relocation order, Kretzky’s commanding officer calls them “one big happy family in frozen hell”. It’s a great line. An acutely descriptive line.

Young Lina’s childhood innocence has been shattered, but she possesses an inner strength that only such miserable circumstances could unveil. She carries on finding brief respites in her art and in fleeting romance with fellow prisoner Andrius (Jonah Hauer-King).

There is a story told, a legend really, about a fishing boat and its survivors – the correlation made late in the film. The devastating circumstances and desolate landscape are accompanied aptly by German composer Volker Bertelmann. But let’s face it, war crimes against the innocent are tough to watch even in movie form, and this film, regardless of how expertly it’s crafted, is relentless in bleakness – though heartfelt and sincere.

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