A dying mother prompts a young Jewish woman to seek out her estranged brother in Josh Appignanesi's feature debut "Song of Songs." Powerful perf by increasingly estimable Nathalie Press, but it suffers from patchy turns by supporting thesps. Fests may give pic blessing, but the weak ending won't coax halleluiahs from buyers.

A dying mother prompts a young Orthodox Jewish woman to seek out her estranged brother with whom she once had an incestuous relationship in Brit helmer Josh Appignanesi’s digitally-shot feature debut “Song of Songs.” Powerful perf by increasingly estimable Nathalie Press (“My Summer of Love”) and strong sense of atmosphere bolster pic, but it suffers from patchy turns by supporting thesps. Further fests may give pic blessing, but weak ending and slightly pretentious direction won’t coax halleluiahs from buyers.

Ruth (Press) returns from Israel to the London suburb of Hendon, an area thickly populated by the Orthodox Jewish community. Her mother (Julia Swift) is dying, seemingly of cancer. Ruth’s father, dialogue reveals, died in a car accident years ago. Sick or not, mom still nudges Ruth to find a nice Jewish husband.

Although little is spelled out explicitly, Ruth and her brother David (Joel Chalfen) apparently had some kind of erotic or quasi-erotic relationship in the past. Ruth now cleaves more closely to her faith. David, however, has become a secular adult education teacher whose zealous classroom explication of William Blake’s line, “Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires,” makes it pretty clear he’s strayed from classic Talmudic doctrine.

At Ruth’s invitation, David eventually returns to the family home, but insists on keeping his presence a secret. The siblings begin reading the more suggestive bits from the “Song of Songs” together in Hebrew and English. Before long, Ruth is wandering around in her underwear and seemingly encouraging David’s latent sadistic instincts.

Script is heavy on biblical quotation but alternately reveals seemingly unnecessary details — such as the dad’s real fate — and not enough other info — like what makes David and Ruth’s relationship tick. Strange, murky images of people in a dark landscape that are reminiscent of Philippe Grandrieux’s “A New Life” top and tail the film. These deepen viewers’ bafflement rather than the sense of mystery for which the helmer seems to be aiming.

Chalfen, perhaps out of frustration with an underwritten part, resorts to a lot thrashing and shouting. Press projects more dignity and seemingly understands that less will go a longer way. Turns by supporting players, apart from the affecting Swift, are very stiff.

Shot on new line of Sony mini DV cameras, fine lensing looks more like 16mm than digital. Other tech credits are OK.

Song of Songs

U.K.

Production

A Wild Horses production. (International sales: Wild Horses, London.) Produced by Gayle Griffiths. Directed by Josh Appignanesi. Screenplay, Jay Basu, Appignanesi.

Crew

Camera (color, mini DV-to-35mm), Nanu Segal; editor, Nicolas Chaudeurge; production designer, Erik Rehl; costume designer, Katy Howkins; sound (Dolby), Joakim Sundstrom. Reviewed at Edinburgh Film Festival (competing), Aug. 22, 2005. Running time: 81 MIN.

With

Nathalie Press, Joel Chalfen, Julia Swift, Leon Lissek, Felicite Du Jeu. (English, Hebrew dialogue)
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