There is something to be said about filmmaking that is bold, but choices also need to work for the audience. The Song of Names offers up a predictably emotional narrative which is not so much about the Holocaust as it is about the aftermath. While this is far from original, the decision to center the story on an extremely flawed character is a new addition to an otherwise obligatory tragic tale. This decision alone could have made for an interesting character study, but the film refuses to give insight into the most questionable decisions made by the characters, particularly the one at the center. Our protagonist is a round character, fully formed, but unfortunately he is not the center of the narrative, and simply the one attempting to understand the enigmatic character that is.
The film follows a music teacher named Martin (Tim Roth), whose adult life has been dedicated to the mystery of the disappearance of his best friend, Dovidl (Clive Owen). Through a series of often intrusive flashbacks, we learn that Dovidl joined Martin’s family as a young violin protégé, as well as way for him to escape the increased danger in Poland. As Dovidl and Martin grow up together, they become inseparable, despite initial difficulty getting along. The situation seems perfect, but Dovidl cannot help but worry about his family as the Nazis occupy. Try as Martin does to be there for his friend, there is a separation between the two of them in Dovidl’s Jewish heritage.
As the young boys grow into young men, Dovidl’s prodigy with violin lands him a highly anticipated concert, which Martin’s father funds on his own. When Dovidl fails to show up for the concert, he is never heard from again. 35 years later, Martin is still searching for him, finding clues that have him traveling across the globe. When he eventually finds him, as we know he will do to the advertised casting of Owen in the role, the answers he discovers are both expected and unfulfilling. Even the cruel (and also predictable) final twist of the narrative comes without much fanfare, leaving the whole endeavor to feel a bit lackluster and, worse yet, pointless. As senselessly cruel as the Holocaust was, the narrative of The Song of Names only adds to the misery by giving us the actions of selfish characters. Grief and tragedy cannot excuse the decisions made by some of the characters, and it detracts from the feelings of empathy the narrative clearly wants from the audience.
It almost feels as though the genius of Dovidl’s violin playing is meant to excuse a great deal of characters flaws. It is one thing to have a flawed character in the narrative, but The Song of Names seems to have no interest in even understanding these flaws. It merely uses them to move the plot forward when necessary, but this results in the feeling that we are forced to spend nearly two hours with characters that are more than a little inexplicable.
The Blu-ray release for The Song of Names includes a handful of featurettes in the extras, with two of them remaining focused on the music of the film. This shouldn’t be surprising for a story that centers on a violin prodigy, though the film itself contains surprisingly little music. The third extra is a basic promotional behind-the-scenes featurette. There is also a theatrical trailer.
Entertainment Value: 5/10
Quality of Filmmaking: 6.5/10
Historical Significance: 4/10
Special Features: 4/10