BERLIN — Israeli director Nadav Lapid drew deeply on his own experiences as a young expatriate 20 years ago for his latest feature “Synonyms,” which world premiered Wednesday in competition at the Berlin Film Festival.
With the story of a man who arrives in Paris determined to leave his nation and his identity behind, Lapid said at a press conference Wednesday that he channeled the spirit of his younger self, who heard a “divine voice” and realized that he had to leave Israel and never go back.
“I landed in Charles de Gaulle airport with a bit of French and no program for the future. I didn’t know anyone. No papers, nothing. But with a clear desire to live and die in Paris,” he said.
Putting down roots in a foreign land proved to be easier said than done. “In order to leave behind your past, your identity, it’s not enough to take a flight to Charles de Gaulle,” he said. “And in a way, the thing which was the harshest for me to sacrifice was the language. So I stopped talking in Hebrew, and I refused to say one single word in Hebrew. I didn’t have words. I had to find new words. That’s how I found myself mumbling synonyms walking on the sidewalks in Paris.”
Two decades later, Lapid – described by Variety as a “striking, idiosyncratic director” – discussed his ambivalence about his homeland.
“I think my films contain great criticism and also great attachment to Israel. The main character’s anger toward Israel wouldn’t be so strong if it weren’t a mirror image of a great attachment,” he said.
“I don’t think [‘Synonyms’] is a political movie. I think that ideas, opinions, thoughts are mixed in the film with gestures, with dances, with bodies, with movements, with songs. The film doesn’t have a political party. The film won’t be voting in elections. It’s an attempt to talk about this special existence.”
Lapid’s last feature, “The Kindergarten Teacher” – which was recently remade in the U.S., starring Maggie Gyllenhaal – centered on a teacher’s growing obsession with a preternaturally gifted child. That film, which played in Cannes in 2014, offered a more mannered follow-up to Lapid’s politically charged debut, “Policeman.”
With “Synonyms,” he said, “I’m an Israeli, so I’m talking about the Israeli experience. I think that Israel is a country that demands a total love, a love without reserves, love without doubts, love without question.”
He continued: “Maybe that’s why it’s hard to detach yourself from this identity. And that’s why the only way to detach yourself from this identity is with a harsh demonstration of violence and rage.”
Yet while the film deals directly with the distinct nature of Israeli identity, the director also said it grappled with universal themes. “The film talks about identity, our past, to which extent we are prisoners of our own identity, of our own past,” he said. “I think these are questions that concern people all over the world.”