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Arts & Life

New Nation, New You: 'Synonyms' Crosses Borders In Search Of Self

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The new film "Synonyms" won the top prize at this year's Berlin Film Festival. It tells the story of a man who wants to obliterate his identity. He leaves his homeland, learns a new language, vows never to speak his old one again. Though it's fiction, the movie is based on the life of its writer-director and inspired by the experiences of its star. Howie Movshovitz of member station KUNC reports.

HOWIE MOVSHOVITZ, BYLINE: Yoav has just a backpack and the address of an empty apartment when he lands in Paris. He walks the streets, reciting random French words he's trying to memorize.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SYNONYMS")

TOM MERCIER: (As Yoav, speaking French).

MOVSHOVITZ: Yoav is from Israel and insists he hates his homeland. He vows never to speak Hebrew again, says his creator, director and writer, Nadav Lapid.

NADAV LAPID: It's not a film about a guy who goes to Paris because he wants to talk a bit of French in order to be able to buy a croissant in a bakery. It's someone who wants, in a way, to die as an Israeli and be reborn as French. And in a way, with each word in French, he's also trying to practice or trying to fabricate his new self.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SYNONYMS")

MERCIER: (As Yoav, speaking French).

MOVSHOVITZ: It's a feeling Lapid knows well. When he was in his 20s, he did the same thing not long after leaving the mandatory military service most Israelis must do. For him, Lapid says, the military indoctrination of a poetry-loving boy began in kindergarten.

LAPID: When you train yourself to be someone else or at least when you suppress certain important parts of your personality and when you do it for years and years and years - and then, of course, doing the military service - at the end, of course, you don't know anymore who you are. You don't know who is the wrong self and who is the right self, which nature is the second one and which is the first one. And I think that this exactly was the thing I was running away from. I felt that I perverted myself.

MOVSHOVITZ: But life in France was not easy.

LAPID: I was very poor. I was living in a 9-meters, miserable studio. I was eating each day the same food. The cheapest meal that I could find, exactly like in the film, was composed of tomato sauce and pasta - tomato sauce and pasta for two years. And I was pretty lonely.

MOVSHOVITZ: Lapid says he was not fleeing specific policies of the Israeli government. It was more a question of finding the opposite of Israeli culture in the softer aesthetics of France. But fitting in was another matter. Israeli actor Tom Mercier, who plays Yoav, says that when he went to France to act in "Synonyms," he shared the ambivalence of the character he plays and that of the director.

MERCIER: For me, being in a new country, I felt all the time that people - when they talk to me in French, I felt a wave of joyfulness and sort of the pain because I couldn't be a part of them, even though that I want to be a part of this culture. And all the time, I have this wall of being the person that came from another country. You find a sort of - a door that's closed in your face.

MOVSHOVITZ: That tension's at the heart of the film. But Mercier had a connection to France that director Nadav Lapid did not. Mercier's father is French, even though the actor grew up in Israel and didn't speak French as a child. So he had a different reason for wanting to leave the country.

MERCIER: I wanted, in a way, to go back to sort of the things that I'm not understanding. I wanted to get closer to my own origins. And that film opened me that door. I didn't finish the film and go back to Israel. I'm living in Paris since the movie. I stayed there. But I feel more belonged to my country when I am more connected to myself. And I think that this is one of the biggest presents that I can get from that movie.

MOVSHOVITZ: Filmmaker Nadav Lapid says that he too felt his Israeli-ness when he lived in Paris. But he felt trapped by his national identity.

LAPID: I wanted to look at the sun. I wanted to look at the moon. I wanted to feel the night. I wanted to feel the day. I wanted to feel the cold and the hot and love and kiss and whatever and not all the time being obsessed with this identity thing.

MOVSHOVITZ: So Lapid returned home to Tel Aviv.

LAPID: When I was going back to Israel, it was in the middle of one of the hardest waves of confrontations and conflicts between Israel and Palestinians. There were endless - what we call terrorist actions. Buses were exploding in the middle of Tel Aviv, in the middle of Jerusalem, where I started to study cinema. But it was going back home. Yeah.

MOVSHOVITZ: For NPR News, I'm Howie Movshovitz. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.