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A Matter of Faith: Song of Songs

“O that thou wert as my brother, that sucked the breasts of my mother!
When I should find thee without, I would kiss thee; yea, I should not be despised.
I would lead thee, and bring thee into...

“O that thou wert as my brother, that sucked the breasts of my mother! When I should find thee without, I would kiss thee; yea, I should not be despised. I would lead thee, and bring thee into my mother's house… —Song of Songs—

“I’ve always been interested in submission, sado-masochist psychology, the idea of rules and transgressions, but how do you talk about that stuff, give it context?” asks director Josh Appignanesi.

His answer is Song of Songs, a dark and disquieting modern chamber piece, which places the theme of human transgression in a religious context.  Deeply religious Ruth (Natalie Press) has recently returned from Israel to care for her dying mother. At her bedridden mother’s request, Ruth seeks out her brother David (Joel Chalfen), the family’s black sheep, whom she has not seen in years.

From here the film plays like a loose interpretation of the aforementioned Song of Songs quote— delving into the deep, somewhat dangerous waters of religious and social taboos. But although Appignanesi maintains that “religion is the big question of our time,” he says that he doesn’t want this to be known as “the religious film.” First and foremost, Song of Songs is about the relationship between Ruth and David.

To this end, Press and Chalfen’s performances are superb. There is very little dialogue for the actors to work with— and much of this is taken from the Torah— but Press in particular perfectly captures Ruth’s rigidity and repression.

“Ruth’s physicality is very different than my own. I’m quite relaxed, while Ruth is tightly bound… I dressed up as Ruth and walked around London, which was hard because it’s difficult to walk in a skirt with no slits. I enjoyed feeling self-righteous, and the power you wield as a masochist,” Press says laughing.
 
Press was raised in the Jewish faith, and although this was beneficial when it came to the pronunciation of her Hebrew lines, she says she is “no great authority on Judaism.” (Appignanesi, incidentally, comes from a wholly secular background.)

Throughout the film are subtle references to an impending disaster— a terrorist attack? Bombs? A natural phenomenon? Although it’s never entirely clear, these references are poignant reminders of current, worldwide religious tensions. But Appignanesi is wary of discussing this aspect, perhaps fearful that such global innuendos will detract from the cloistered ambiance of the film.  

“All the references to the news are very subtle. I think it weakens the film to be too heavy handed— ultimately this is about brother-sister relationships, not world events,” he says. “The events that have the most magnitude are the ones that are close to home.”

Song of Songs is not an easy film— it poses difficult questions about the nature of human relationships without attempting to answer them. But at the same time, one has to respect this small, powerful film for asking those questions in the first place.

    

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