Toronto 2015: ‘Song of Songs’ review


An elegy for both the lost world of the Jewish shtetl and the fanciful idylls of childhood, the exquisitely lensed Song of Songs (2015) is the new film from award-winning Ukrainian director Eva Neymann. With a narrative constructed of elements plucked from across the work of Yiddish author Sholem Aleichem, it charts the burgeoning feelings between a young boy and girl growing up in close proximity in a traditional Hasidic community in the early 20th century. If a little fleeting and slightly evasive, this perfectly captures the ephemeral nature of their pre-adolescent romance and Rimvydas Leipus’ stunning cinematography makes up for any possible shortcomings.

Though nothing like it in terms of form, the compositions remind in some ways of Dietrich
Brüggemann’s Stations of the Cross; they resemble slowly moving tableaux somewhere between a book of fairytale illustrations and the paintings of someone like Pieter de Hooch, albeit bathed in the cold light of an Eastern European climate. Artful and elegant, they lend proceedings a sublime quality that emphasises the characters’ tender naivety and inability to relinquish the essence of childish stories in favour of a harsh reality. The tales, told by Shimek (Yevheniy Kogan), are filled with magical powers, woodland kingdoms and an imprisoned princess (or tsarevna) named Buzya (Milena Tsibulskaya).

Years later, having abandoned the village and become a doctor, Shimek (now played by Arsenity Semenov) returns home on the eve of Buzya’s (Arina Postolova) wedding, perhaps only now coming to understand the truth behind his youthful words. As an adult, he may be able to articulate his longing, but during Song of Songs’ first half, all he can do is try to enchant her with mystical fables. He weaves a tapestry of an idealised reality, perhaps similar to the one weaved by the film in its melancholic lament for shtetl life. There are moments when the curtain falls – particularly in the equally grotesque and humorous strictures of the local rabbi during Shimek’s education. His departure from the village also chimes with a transition from youthful ignorance in which he sees through the reliance on tradition that surrounds him. As the camera passes over crowds and hears snatches of conversation from the nondescript neighbours, his decision to leave home is considered with suspicion and hostility. Their grievance lies in the notion of Shimek betraying God for science, and the enchanting soundtrack further foregrounds a cultural reticence towards progress. Scratchy vinyl recordings of traditional Jewish songs provide musical accompaniment and give aural presence to the social pressures from which Shimek feels compelled to escape. But this is at a cost, shattering the pristine creations of childhood all to late to mine the treasures within them. Instead he, like Song of Songs, is left pining for some now intangible past.

The Toronto International Film Festival takes place from 10-20 September 2015. For more coverage, follow this link.

Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson