Monday, December 23, 2019

Girard’s The Song of Names

It was a legendarily disastrous canceled concert, almost like a classical Frye Festival. The promoter was indeed ruined when Dovidl Rapaport failed to arrive for his much-anticipated concert debut. Unfortunately, that was Martin Simmonds’ father. For years, Simmonds searches for the man who was like a brother to him, hoping to find the closure he needs. It might not be fully satisfying, but at least he will have some answers when he finally tracks down the mysterious Rapaport in Francois Girard’s The Song of Names, which opens Christmas Day in New York.

Shortly before Hitler and Stalin invaded Poland, Simmonds’ father Gilbert took young  violin virtuoso Dovidl Rapaport into their home, promising to nurture his career from the presumed safety of London. Even though young Martin was jealous of Rapaport’s prodigious talents, he too took pride in protecting his surrogate brother. However, the uncertainty of his family’s fate back in Poland tormented Rapaport, causing anxiety that often manifested itself in boorish and anti-social ways. Nevertheless, his talent only grew. By the time he reached his early twenties, he recorded an album that electrified the critics. Everything was fine at the rehearsal and sound-checks, but when it was time for the uninsured concert to start, Rapaport was a no-show.

That betrayal of his family continues to haunt Simmonds for decades. Obsessively, he tracks leads that take him back to Communist era Poland, but to no avail. His wife Helen worries about the financial and emotional strain, but she still mostly accepts his quest for the truth.

It makes sense Girard, who helmed Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould, would be interested in bringing music critic Norman Lebrecht’s novel to the big screen, because Rapaport’s artistic temperament is not completely dissimilar from Gould’s. Yet, Martin Simmonds is undeniably the film’s protagonist and the primary character everyone will identify with.

Tim Roth is terrific as Simmonds, humanizing his neuroses and making his obsessive behavior sympathetic rather than creepy. He also has some really smart and appealing chemistry with Catherine McCormack playing his wife, even though her character is somewhat thinly sketched. In contrast, Clive Owen emphasizes all of grown-up Rapaport’s rough edges and standoffishness. Frankly, he does some nice work, but he really helps tilt the film towards Roth’s Simmonds.

Given the themes screenwriter Jeffrey Caine’s adaptation addresses, the big revelation probably will not be all that surprising, but that is really not the point of the film. Instead, it clearly depicts the power of music to heal. Much like Giraud’s Red Violin, Song of Names also vividly illustrates the poisonous impact of toxic 20th Century ideologies on art and humanity. Although there are no scenes set inside the concentration camps during the war, Song of Names was the first feature film to receive permission to film on-site at the Treblinka memorial. It also shows the half-dead shell of one of Rapaport’s former violinist rivals after decades imprisonment and dubious “treatment” in a Soviet-era sanitarium.

The is a very classy production, thanks to David Franco’s warmly elegant cinematography and the evocatively tragic music composed by Howard Shore. The big emotional crescendo is somewhat predictable, but the human messiness of the characters and their situations is considerably more important. Recommended for fans of decade-spanning period dramas, The Song of Names opens Christmas Day in New York, at the Angelika Film Center.