“CALL ME BY YOUR NAME”— A Jewish Film?


A Jewish Film?

Amos Lassen

I am the kind of guy who is usually judged by two aspects of my life— my Jewishness and my sexuality and the two have gone hand in hand for as long as I can remember. I have been told that I tend to judge things as to whether they are good for the Jews and good for the gays so you can imagine how I felt after seeing “Call Me By Your Name”, a wonderful example of a Jewish gay movie. If you missed the Jewish elements just hold on and I will take you through them and I bet you will be surprised that you did not recognize them yourselves. First let’s not forget that the film is based on writer Andre’ Aciman’s book o the same name. Aside from bring one of my favorite writers, Aciman is Jewish and of Egyptian heritage. By the way, Aciman is straight and I so well remember reading the book when it first came out and wondering how a straight man could have written such a sensual gay novel. While reading his other books, the issue of sexuality never came up but eating that peach here drove me wild. (If you are old enough to remember, there was a similar fruit-eating scene in the screenplay that Larry Kramer wrote based on D.H. Lawrence’s “Women in Love” but it was straight).

“Call Me By Your Name” is a gorgeous coming of age film and I remember all the hubbub when it premiered last January at the Sundance Film Festival and there were reports that audiences swooned when they saw it and tears were shed over its beauty.

Let’s have a look at the cast. Elio is played by the young Timothée Chalamet and Elio is a 17-year-old American living abroad in Italy. His father, played by Michael Stuhlbarg, is a professor of archaeology, and each summer he sponsors a different, brilliant student to study with him and this year he has brought Oliver who is played by the very good looking Armie Hammer. Elio and Oliver fall in love with each other and we fall in love with them as they do.

Now you probably do not know that Timothy Chalamet’s mother is Jewish which, according to Jewish law makes him Jewish. Stuhlbarg was raised Jewish growing up in California and Hammer is descended from the Jewish industrialist and philanthropist Armand Hammer. In the film their characters are Jewish and while we all know people like them, these are not the kinds of Jewish characters that we usually see on film.

We see Stuhlbarg as a welcoming man, an intellectual who enjoys challenging students on small points. He and his family are polyglot and they enjoy the arts and the beautiful things in life. We certainly see the Jewish emphasis on education in all of the characters. Yet we see no signs of Judaica in the family lodging but we do see that Oliver wears a Star of David around his neck. These are secular Jews and Oliver even remarks about having been “the odd Jew” even though he was raised in New England where there are indeed many Jews (I am writing this from Boston now). Elio, on the other hand, and his family are probably the only Jews in their Italian town. Elio tells Oliver that his mother thinks of them as discretionary Jews. Oliver retorts that his “bubbe” taught him about being Jewish.

The Jewish families that we usually see on film are closed and here we have an open family and we hear Elio speak openly about how he almost had sex with a local girl. He does not worry what his family will think when they learn that he is gay and we hear a wonderful monologue about parenting by his father who says that he has always known that his son is gay and even speaks around his relationship with Oliver. He gives Elio the space he needs as he speaks words of love and caution to his son. The ideals we set for ourselves are ours to achieve and that, to me, is a strong Jewish identification. After all, the reason we undertake repairing the world is so that we can better live in it.

We have had some wonderful gay-themed films of late but this is a landmark film in that it is a film that everyone will love regardless of sexuality even with the fact that the two male leads are intimate and that is a necessary part of the story.

There are no composite characters here; we have two specific characters with specific sexualities. While this is a film that indeed belongs to the gay community, it is also very Jewish in its zeal and compassion and intelligence and I think it is just fine that we claim that just to make us feel good right now. I am fairly sure that the gay community will not mind.

I almost forgot to mention that the film was masterfully directed by Luca Guadagnino and it is a true beauty.

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