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Song of Songs
Josh Appignanesi

Ion Martea
posted 23 January 2006

In an introductionary note to a list of his favourite films of all time (compiled in 1991), Roger Ebert claimed that one assesses the quality of a film primarily on an emotional level. While agreeing that there are sometimes attempts by filmmakers to intellectualise the medium, he insisted that serious debate has its place in philosophy, literature, but most certainly not on the cinema screen. While this can apply to Fellini, Antonioni, Lean or Wilder, there seems to be a second group of directors that most definitely reject Ebert's claim. The films of Tarkovsky, Bergman, Pasolini or Haneke, derive their existential arch primarily from the stark juxtaposition of images with intellectual rigor. Watching Appignanesi's Song of Songs, one can safely include its director in the latter cohort.

Placing characters in a Jewish milieu has become a bit of a cliché over the years, yet Appignanesi overcomes these in his audacity to tackle themes that would not only disgust the Orthodox Jewish community, but also open up new insights into a world that seems to let itself known quite rarely to the wider world. It would be wrong to say that Song of Songs condemns the faith of its characters, because its central axe is not so much belief in God's Word, as man's vanity to think himself able to lead life independent of Him.

David (Joel Chalfen), an English teacher, an atheist, yet with an Orthodox Jewish background, opens the film by asking: 'Who is your father?', and continuing with a long monologue on man's vanity. He seems to have found his own religion, one void of ancient rituals, a religion defined by the beauty derived from a man's intimate enjoyment of his personal ambitions. By following his desires, he argues, man does not necessarily fall into depravity, but develops into a higher being. A man's desires are not regarded as damning, but Aristotelian-like moral codes, which ultimately make the man his own father.

Then we get to meet David's sister, Ruth (Nathalie Press), who has just returned from Israel in order to take care of her dying mother (Julia Swift). She is trying hard to learn the Torah from her parent, but feels disillusioned with the results, leading into an uninterrupted chain of distress, which she is trying to overcome by continuously chanting the Shema.

David has not visited his mother for a long time, being mostly annoyed by her fanaticism, as he sees it. He masturbates, dances with women, sees no use in having the mirrors in the house being covered after fifteen years of his father's death, and he seems to have developed a fascination with his sister's exposed body. Through David, Appignanesi wants to deconstruct all the taboos in the orthodox faith, leaving the believer in a state which transcends that of shock. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that his return transforms him into a sadistic incestuous animal, yet an animal that knows the Torah, but would teach it to his sister through his own eyes, totally blinded by his own vanity, totally immersing in the sin of self-glorification.

Song of Songs is not an easy film in any way. The spectator has to do his homework into Judaism in order to be able to find a way through this film. The title is an ingenious one, referring to a collection of songs attributed to Solomon expressing his most intimate relationship with God. However, God had vanished, the father left faceless, despite his omni-benevolence. In the intimate relationship David develops with Ruth, God can do nothing but watch in horror, hoping that his children will finally come to the right resolution. The resolution does come, though probably neither of the children has truly understood the essence of the prayer being chanted throughout their act of living.

In so many ways, Appignanesi had made a film without a market. It is a film on theology, though it does nothing but offend the creed of its characters; it is a film on sexuality, yet it is hardly arousing. Aware of the limits of his audience's knowledge of Judaism, the director tries to sell it as a story of male machismo and female masochism. Haneke's The Piano Teacher meets Bergman's The Seventh Seal. Yet Songs of Songs is very much a film with its own powerful vision.

The film works like one continuing prayer, yet one that challenges the viewer, one that does not make philosophy only through dialogue, but through its image composition. For its sheer intellectual vigour, Bergman would applaud it. It echoes a passion for the search of truth present in films such as Persona, Wild Strawberries, and especially Saraband, all by the great Swedish auteur. It is a film that is courageous enough to ask important questions, and is confident enough to hint at certain solutions. Whether through vanity we discover God, or God, omni-benevolent, omniscient and omnipotent, saves us in the ultimate stance, is a choice Appignanesi leaves both to his characters and his spectators. In his youth, he seems to understand too well the function of the film image, which can say so much more, if charged sufficiently, than any novel.

At the ICA, London, from 10 February 2006


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