PJFF Film: “Song of Songs”

Rooted in the Yiddish folklore of Sholem Aleichem’s short stories, Eva Neymann’s tender third feature is a delicate and affecting coming-of-age story set at the turn of the 20th century.

Growing up in the beautiful but insular world of his close-knit Ukrainian shtetl, guided and nurtured by tradition, the elf-like Shimek (Yevheniy Kogan) endearingly acquiesces to his conservative parents’ rearing. However, neither Shimek’s parents nor his school’s stern rabbi are able to deflate this precocious child’s uncanny imagination. Cultivating a friendship with local girl Buzya (Milena Tsibulskaya), Shimek finds himself more than a confidant — he finds a “home” for all of his otherworldly thoughts and meanderings.

In another time and place, Shimek and Buzya would be together, but in their archaic shtetl, any demonstration of affection is restrained by the village’s Orthodox customs. It is only after fate sends Shimek away from his village that he realizes the true depth of his feelings for Buzya. When he finally returns, it will be a homecoming with a palette tinted gray with regret, but redeemed by faith that the old world can be born anew.

With beautiful scenery worthy of the Flemish masters, Neymann constructs a remarkably detailed tone poem. The film’s magical, ephemeral aura is enhanced by its soundtrack, vinyl recordings by Jewish singers and musicians, as well as its impeccable lighting and production design. Supported by the nuanced debut performances from its lead actors, “Song of Songs” is a cinematic triumph, a measured and lyrical representation of youthful devotion in a time of great change. This film, in Russian with English subtitles, was an official selection of the New York Jewish Film Festival, the Washington Jewish Film Festival and the Toronto International Film Festival.

The guest speaker at this screening of the film is Sonia Gollance, a Yiddish literature and dance scholar and a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Pennsylvania.

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