Israeli-French drama ‘Synonyms’ wins top prize at Berlin film festival

Israeli-French drama ‘Synonyms’ wins top prize at Berlin film festival

Nadav Lapid’s absurdist film about an Israeli trying to put down roots in France first-ever movie by an Israeli filmmaker to take Golden Bear award at prestigious Berlinale

Israeli director Nadav Lapid celebrates with his Golden bear for best film for 'Synonyms' during the awards ceremony of the 69th Berlinale film festival on February 16, 2019 in Berlin. (John MACDOUGALL / AFP)
Israeli director Nadav Lapid celebrates with his Golden bear for best film for 'Synonyms' during the awards ceremony of the 69th Berlinale film festival on February 16, 2019 in Berlin. (John MACDOUGALL / AFP)

Israeli-French film “Synonyms” by director Nadav Lapid took home the top prize at the Berlin film festival — the country’s first ever Golden Bear.

The absurdist, broadly autobiographical movie tells the story of an Israeli who moves to Paris to flee the fraught political situation in his own country.

A jury headed by French actress Juliette Binoche chose the movie from a field of 16 competing at the first of the year’s major European film festivals. Set in Paris, it stars Tom Mercier in the role of Yoav, who refuses to speak Hebrew and is accompanied by an ever-present French dictionary as he tries to put down roots and create a new identity for himself.

Lapid said as he accepted the award that some in Israel might be “scandalized” by the movie “but for me, the film is also a big celebration — a celebration, I hope, also of cinema.”

Director Nadav Lapid, left, receives the golden bear for best film for ‘Synonyms’ from jury president Juliette Binoche onstage at the award ceremony of the 2019 Berlinale Film Festival in Berlin, Germany, Saturday, Feb. 16, 2019. (AP/Markus Schreiber)

“I hope that people will not look only at this film as a kind of harsh or radical political statement because it’s not,” he told reporters, describing it as “a human and existential and artistic statement.”

“I hope that people will understand that fury and rage and hostility and hate … are only the twin brothers and sisters of strong attachment and powerful emotions,” he said.

The last Israeli to win a prize at the festival was filmmaker Joseph Cedar, who in 2007 won the Silver Bear award for Best Director.

“Synonyms” is the third feature by Lapid, whose previous film “The Kindergarten Teacher” has been remade in the US starring Maggie Gyllenhaal.

The movie, which delves into the deep ambivalence of the young Yoav about both his birth country Israel and adopted homeland of France, divided critics.

US website Indie wire called the movie a “wilfully confrontational satire that pugnaciously mocks his own Israeli identity; the culture of France, where Lapid lived at the start of this century; and assorted conventions and decorums of art cinema”.

Yoav won’t allow himself to speak Hebrew so he communicates in a kind of pidgin French he’s cobbled together from a dictionary.

He tells largely disinterested Parisians that he has left Israel to get away from a country that he finds “repugnant, fetid, obscene, vulgar” –- words that help give the film its title.

When Yoav runs into money trouble, he advertises his services as a nude model. An artist who answers the post pays him to perform sexual acts on himself while shouting in Hebrew.

His periodic run-ins with nationalistic Israeli security officers from the embassy prove similarly absurd.

“Mercier … delivers a raw, disconcerting and altogether unpredictable turn that recalls the work of a young Tom Hardy (this includes his ability to act without any clothes on),” the Hollywood Reporter wrote.

‘Breaking silence’

The runner-up jury prize went to French filmmaker Francois Ozon “By the Grace of God,” a wrenching drama based on real-life survivors of rampant sexual molestation in the Catholic church.

“The film tries to break the silence in powerful institutions,” he said. “I want to share this prize with the victims of sexual abuse.”

The Silver Bear acting prizes went to the stars of moving Chinese epic “So Long, My Son”, Wang Jingchun and Yong Mei, about the lasting impact of the country’s one-child policy.

“This is the tragedy of a woman, a family that loses its son,” Yong said as she picked up the trophy.

“We were happy we were able to complete the film.”

Jury president Juliette Binoche had earlier expressed “regret” that another Chinese film, veteran Zhang Yimou’s “One Second”, was pulled from the competition during the festival reportedly due to official censorship.

“Zhang has been an essential voice in international cinema,” she said.

“We need artists who help us make sense of history.”

German filmmaker Angela Schanelec won the best director prize for “I Was At Home, But”, a drama about a grieving widow and her wayward son.

Schanelec, 57, was one of a record seven women among the 16 contenders in the competition at the Berlinale, Europe’s first cinema showcase of the year.

The awards ceremony began with a tribute and standing ovation for Swiss actor Bruno Ganz, who starred in iconic German films such as “Downfall” in which he played Adolf Hitler and Wim Wenders’s “Wings of Desire” set in divided Berlin.

Berlinale director Dieter Kosslick earlier called him “one of the greatest and most versatile actors”, who made “international film history.

“Now he is truly in the heavens above Berlin,” he said in a play on the Wenders film’s German title, “Der Himmel ueber Berlin.”

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