Synonyms is a film driven by an idea, one that rattles around in its protagonist’s head and belabors him at every step. The question is one of personhood and its creation through language — whether one’s nationality is something malleable or, at most, a lie that a citizen can either accept or reject. Taking a number of cues from director Nadav Lapid’s experiences in Paris after his own departure from Israel, Synonyms follows Yoav, a young Israeli running away from his country and its history, as he attempts to find stable footing in Paris. After a symbolic rebirth wherein Yoav finds his personal property stolen and spends the night naked in a bathtub, a young, rich couple offer him clothes and money so that he can start anew in la Ville des Lumières with his adopted language. Both the structure of the story and the oft-disorienting camerawork convey an implacable feeling of alienation, reflected not only through Yoav’s increasingly frustrated mental state, but also the gauntlet his body is run through for the sake of money. He’s told that to give up his language is to lose a part of his person, but this is exactly what he wants.
Indeed, if Hebrew is directly associated with any images here, they can be found in the scenes where Yoav interacts with his co-workers on the security detail for the Israeli embassy. Upon starting there, he’s told to watch for minorities and to profile Arabs, thereby infecting his new life with the culture of hypermasculinity and Israeli militarism he’d hoped to rid himself of. One of the most harrowing sequences features Yoav’s colleague, Yaron, storming around on the subway aggressively humming the Israeli national anthem in everyone’s face. He singles out a middle-aged Arab, which here suggests that his violence exists in a predetermined matrix, where the historical conflicts of one’s people are forced onto the individual, thus consigning them to the cycles of discord that plague modern Europe. And here rests the film’s pessimism: Yoav is certainly not free from this; his mother’s father committed acts of terror against British presence in Palestine. And so, as Lapid has said in an interview, “the political, the physical, and even the sexual merge in the clearest way,” dooming Yoav’s body to the fatalism of a conflict perpetuated by a reluctance to speak in the language of another.
Published as part of October 2019’s Before We Vanish.