Israel’s Best Director Struggled With Jewish Identity For 20 Years, and It Fueled His Greatest Movie

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The first thing that Nadav Lapid’s “Synonyms” wants you to know about its muscular protagonist, played by judo expert turned dancer Tom Mercier, is that his penis is large and circumcised. You don’t yet know his name, what he’s doing in Paris, or why the cavernous apartment where he’s staying is completely unfurnished; only that his Platonic ideal of a physique wasn’t given to him as a blank slate.

Like the Jewishness it sometimes implies, a circumcision is easy to hide from others, and even easier to ignore about yourself. But for Yoav, who’s exiled himself from Israel in a desperate bid to escape the “Israeli destiny” and everything it implies, it’s a nagging reminder of where he came from.

“The movie worships that body,” Lapid told me during a recent interview in Manhattan, “but it’s also a cursed and stranded thing.” And Lapid would know: That body — or at least some version of it — once belonged to him.

“Synonyms,” the brilliant and agitated winner of the Golden Bear at the Berlinale earlier this year, is a largely autobiographical character study inspired by the filmmaker in his early 20s, when Lapid fled to Europe after convincing himself that he’d been born in the Middle East by mistake. Like Yoav, Lapid felt suffocated by the chokehold of his country’s nationalistic violence, disgusted by the performative hyper-masculinity required to uphold it, and resentful of inheriting an identity that fit him like a straitjacket.

And like Yoav, Lapid was so determined to purge himself of his previous identity that he tried to exorcise the Israeli-ness out of his body however he could. He committed to a monastic lifestyle of poverty, solitude, and borderline starvation. He didn’t call home. He vowed to never speak a word of Hebrew, and he began reciting vocabulary from a pocket-sized French thesaurus like it was a religious text.



Now, some 20 years later, Lapid can’t help but laugh at his own extremism. “For Yoav, it’s like there is a demon inside him, and that demon lives in every syllable of every word,” Lapid said. “But to give up your words? To become wordless?” He shook his head and smiled. “When you’re young, you treat ideas like they’re concrete things,” he said. “Concepts are so serious, but reality is full of bitter humor. The meeting between them will always be tense.”

Lapid learned that lesson the hard way, and now it’s Yoav’s turn to do the same. Absent much of a traditional plot, “Synonyms” is a film that derives its energy from the friction between bodies and minds — where we come from and who we are. By reaching into his recent past and responding to some very specific political mishegoss, Lapid has made a hot fever of a movie that howls at the entire modern world, circling the idea that the things that we experience or create firsthand make us who we are.

“Synonyms” might be a singular film that nobody else could have made, but for Lapid it represents something of a logical next step. “Policeman,” the first of his three hyper-visceral features, turned a Tel Aviv hostage crisis into a deadly intergenerational debate between idealism and complacency. “The Kindergarten Teacher,” which began to cement Lapid’s status as Israel’s most dynamic young director, tells a story about an educator who’s so moved by a four-year-old student’s poetry and the possibilities that his words carve through a petrified world that she eventually kidnaps the boy away from a family who doesn’t appreciate his gifts; the film is shot from a kid’s-eye-view, and the poems recited were written by Lapid himself at that age. Here, Lapid captures his protagonist in a series of wild and unpredictable shots that always return our attention to the rules of the physical world. “My hope was that the movie would oscillate between different cinematic styles while always maintaining the same vibration,” Lapid said, the frame becoming a palpable extension of Yoav’s body in that neither are able to offer him the escape they seem primed to enable.

Few auteurs have better understood the raw physicality of a movie camera, and even fewer have been so attuned to the transformational power of language.

When production began on Netflix’s English-language remake of “The Kindergarten Teacher,” Lapid visited the set. (Sara Colangelo directed.) Gael García Bernal was reciting an English translation of a poem he had written at the age of four. “It was like, wow,” he said. Once again, he was reminded that words can do anything, and found himself in a position where he was giving his away. It’s no wonder that he began shooting “Synonyms” the next year.

“Our life stories are so instructive and able to help us deal with so many things, but voluntarily we give up the capacity to tell them,” Lapid said. “This is the driving curiosity behind all of my movies. I am fascinated by what happens when you reach to grasp an idea — by the moment when we open our mouths to speak a thought and make it real. When you try to complete a metaphor, you find yourself in contradiction. You live in a state of permanent disappointment or fury.”

Yet things start well enough for Yoav, who nearly freezes to death his first night in Paris only to be awakened the next day by the cartoonish bourgeois couple living downstairs. “For Yoav, it’s the first step towards paradise,” Lapid said. Suddenly, Yoav can be anybody he wants: He wears the mustard-colored peacoat his new friends give him like a superhero costume. They play with him like two kids who’ve stumbled upon a naked action figure, and in exchange for their hospitality Yoav offers them the stories he’s brought with him from home. When he tells them about his childhood obsession with the Hector of Greek myth, or shares anecdotes of the the comic absurdism he experienced during his state-mandated time in the Israeli Defense Force (shades of Samuel Maoz’s “Foxtrot”), it feels as if Yoav is shedding his skin.

“Synonyms”

“Yoav’s body contains his past,” Lapid has said. “It contains his essential nature, which he wishes to decapitate. But the past cannot be changed.” The harder that Yoav tries to become French, the deeper he leans into that language, and the further he tries to exchange one brand of nationalism for another, the more that people see him as a symbol of Israeli manhood.

One indelible scene finds him working as a nude model for an overzealous photographer who’s never met a boundary he wouldn’t cross; he instructs Yoav to lie nude on the floor of his studio, stick a finger up his own ass, and scream in Hebrew (the photographer explicitly tells him that what he says is less important than the language in which he says it). Later, he’s asked to pose in an erotic photoshoot with a young Palestinian woman — it doesn’t go well. Identity is a home and a prison. Denying who you are is not synonymous with becoming someone else.

Lapid sees Yoav’s condition as a unifying force that anyone can understand in their own way (“it’s a film about what happens when stability becomes instability, and we go from static to movement — people can relate to this on a very basic level”). Moreover, he’s come to appreciate that representation is a tricky business, and that we can be so committed to our self-image that we struggle to understand their own reflection. “The audience who understood this movie the least were Israeli film critics,” Lapid said. “The reviews were good, but the political lens was so narrow. Watching reality all the time in extreme close-up is not always a good way of seeing it clearly.”

“Synonyms”

There are only so many people you can be if you’re unwilling to become who you are. “Synonyms” couldn’t be any less interested in offering a clear solution, but a few bits of wisdom can be found amidst the rubble this hand grenade of a movie leaves behind. The world isn’t as wide as it looks out your window, and it’s cut up into constructs that shrink it smaller all the time; one country is synonymous with another, our bodies offer slight variations on a basic type, and strangers kill each other for worshipping the same god by a different name. There are only so many people you can be if you’re unwilling to become who you are, and there’s no shame in learning that lesson the hard way. “I think it’s a noble activity to bump into closed doors,” Lapid said, referencing a memorable shot that some have misinterpreted as an expression of futility.

And for Lapid, it always comes back to the shots. Yoav has his stories, and Lapid has his shots. “Synonyms” is nothing if not a film about the purity of self-expression — it finds a sacred quality hiding in the precious few parts of our world that can’t be substituted for something else.

Lapid only signed off on the remake of “The Kindergarten Teacher” because he didn’t think the premise itself was special to him. He was willing to lend out his script, and even his poems. And as uncomfortable as it was for him to watch the film (“I delayed it for a while and then decided to see it in public for the first time, which may have been a bad decision”), he didn’t feel betrayed, because Colangelo hadn’t used his shots. “They are the most intimate things I have,” Lapid said. “I find myself through the way that they move. They are mine and I will never give them to someone else.”

These days, he is also determined not to take someone else’s shots away from them, so to speak. Just before production began on “Synonyms,” Lapid’s sister-in-law had a baby — a boy. She was torn over whether or not to circumcise the child, and turned to Lapid for guidance. “I told them ‘I totally understand if you don’t want your son to be Israeli and part of the Israeli destiny, but if so you should leave the country,” he said. “If you’re staying in Israel, then be Israeli.”

After the movie wrapped, however, Lapid and his girlfriend (who live together in Tel Aviv) had a baby of their own — a boy. They chose not to circumcise him. Has it gotten easier for Lapid to bridge the gap between ideas and facts, or harder? Even he can’t say for sure. But making “Synonyms” and looking back at his own attempts to outrun his body and the history it implied, Lapid found himself circling back to what he described as “a very Jewish way of thinking” about a choice that could be painful to delay, but would be impossible to undo. “When thoughts become facts, sometimes they become very, very complete facts,” he laughed. “So we just said ‘Okay: Let’s decide not to decide.”

Kino Lorber will release “Synonyms” in theaters on October 25.

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