Eva Neymann imbues ordinary moments and domestic tasks with a magical quality. Yet this sense of wonder is as fragile as shtetl life itself.
Each composed moment of Song of Songs is beautiful. Just as the young protagonist Shimek (Yevheniy Kogan) sees princesses and palaces in his tiny impoverished shtetl, writer-director Eva Neymann imbues ordinary moments and domestic tasks with a magical quality. Yet this sense of wonder is as fragile as shtetl life itself. Song of Songs is initially faithful to Yiddish storyteller Sholem Aleichem’s tale of the same name, but alters the ending to emphasize the conflict between faith and modernity in an insular Ukrainian Jewish community.
“A castle, a palace. I am the prince, Buzya is the princess.” These are the first words we hear in the film. The speaker, Shimek, is a young boy raised by strict but loving parents in a turn-of-the-century Ukrainian shtetl. Buzya (Milena Tsibulskaya), a fatherless girl cared for in part by Shimek’s family, is the boy’s idol and constant companion. Shimek submits without complaint to the traditions of his community while dreaming of magic spells from the Kabbalah. Most of all, he dreams of Buzya, who is at the centre of all of his fairy tales. Yet he only realises Buzya’s true importance to him once he has grown and left the shtetl. Grown-up Shimek (Arsenity Semenov) races home for the first time in years after learning that Buzya (Arina Postolova) is to be married.
Much of the film is leached of colour until Buzya enters the frame. At times, her bright red hair or her flower-printed clothes are the only bright spot in otherwise drab surroundings. Neymann shows us Buzya through Shimek’s eyes: everything around her, from goose-feathers blowing gently around her hands, to the soft sound of thread being spun, is a source of fascination. Most enchanting are the moments that Buzya and Shimek spend together outside their town when the whole world is illuminated: green grass, pink blossoms, and bright blue skies are far from the muddy streets of the shtetl proper.
Neymann’s screenplay roots the young lovers’ bond in the life of the shtetl, a context that determines the fate of their relationship. The families of the shtetl are nearly destitute — Shimek’s mother wonders longingly at how owning a goat can change a family’s life — but the characters’ childhood experience is never portrayed as grim. Yet the film’s humour turns dark in moments shared between adults, when children are not in the frame. “We don’t have to be afraid of a pogrom here, because we already had one,” reads a letter to Shimek’s father, “and except for seven people, nobody in our family died.”
In Aleichem’s original tale Jewish law keeps Shimek and Buzya apart, but in Neymann’s film, what separates the young lovers is much more ephemeral. One could call it the slow death of shtetl life. For Shimek, joy and purpose always lay outside the shtetl itself, at first in fairy tales and then literally when he moved away. Buzya is most often filmed doing something related to the community’s little world: spinning, serving food, or watching singers in the market. Buzya is portrayed as part of the shtetl community, whereas Shimek is increasingly a stranger from it.
Neymann and cinematographer Rimvydas Leipus highlight this distance by reusing a distinctive shot structure in scenes after Shimek returns home. One character from the shtetl is visible through a door-frame, talking to someone else in that room who cannot be seen. Context indicates that the unseen person is Shimek, but since he is silent and out of frame, the other characters might as well be talking to themselves. In contrast, Shimek follows Buzya through doorways and speaks to her through open windows.
Returning home, Shimek asks himself, “Am I too late, or did I come back just in time?” But only in fairy tales can the prince sweep away the princess a week before her wedding. Warm, lyrical, and sweetly sad, “Song of Songs” reminds us that coming of age is as much about what we lose as what we gain.
Song of Songs screens Sat. Sept. 19 at 3:15 p.m. at the Scotiabank Theatre. For tickets and details, visit the TIFF website here.