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“The Song of Names” is one of the slowest movies to progress through the theaters this year (released in December 2019), taking a deceptively simple mystery theme and moving it through time via flashbacks, between 1938, to 1951 and 1986.
In 1938, a wealthy man in London, Gilbert (Stanley Townsend), agrees to house and support a young violin prodigy, Dovidl, a Jewish refugee from Poland. Growing up alongside Martin, Gilbert’s son, Dovidl’s precocious nature and natural brilliance are supposed to culminate with a huge concert in 1951, but the young man, now 21, vanishes without a trace right before the concert. Martin’s family is left in shame and ruin. It’s a financial and emotional blow that from which Martin’s father never recovers.
Fast forward to 1986 and the 56-year-old Martin, judging a musical competition, sees one of the young competitors use a stylistic quirk before starting, which only could have come from Dovidl. This kicks off an obsessive search for the long missing Dovidl as Martin tracks the long-ago steps of the man who he regards both as brother and as the person who destroyed his family.
This is one of the many recent movies that revolves around the World War II era and its aftermath. Much of its message is in your face and stated directly, making it seem straight-forward and boring. For example, one of the more interesting scenes ends in a lecture that brings a point home. The two youngsters, 13, are running through a bombed area of London and Dovidl casually helps himself to jewelry and cash from a dead woman’s body. Martin is horrified and asks if Dovidl has no compassion for the dead woman.
“Do you know how many people died last night?” Dovidl replies. “I don’t just mean in London; I mean in occupied Europe. Shot. Bayonetted. Blown up. Starved. Burnt alive. Hung. Tens of thousands, and nobody even knows their names. So, tell me, which ones am I supposed to feel for? All of them, or just the ones I trip over the morning after?”
But underlying the in-your-face messages of this movie, you can find some interesting questions that are not directly answered like:
What does it mean to be a man? To whom do you owe allegiance, those who take you in or the family into which you were born? Can someone really change to become a vastly different person?
One of the hurdles here involves the flashback solution of having three different actors play the major characters. While the three Martins (Misha Handley, Gerran Howell and Tim Roth) are consistent in looks, demeanor and behavior, the three Dovidls (Luke Doyle, Jonah-Hauer King and Clive Owen) are almost entirely different from one another. The child, Doyle, is the most compelling and interesting of them all. While this may be intentional, indicating that each version of this person is vastly different from the other, it is disconcerting and intrusive.
While this movie is interesting to follow, featuring lush and compelling backdrops from war-torn London to a stark Treblinka extermination camp and has some lovely sequences (like a violin playing dual in a bomb shelter), it is not a good movie, and it falls short in the cohesiveness category. It is, however, worth giving a watch, because it made me want to read the book, by Norman Lebrecht, to fill in some of the spaces between scenes.
Elva K. Österreich may be reached at Elva@lascrucesbulletin.com.