The Holy Land
Holy Land exposes eccentric and conflicting elements of Middle Eastern life.
Thursday, October 16, 2003
The Holy Land, a work of rough promise and nervy ambition by DC filmmaker Eitan Gorlin, is a coming-of-age love story wrapped in a fevered reckoning of the sorry pass to which Israel has been brought-- and brought itself. Although based on people the writer-director met while working as a bartender in Jerusalem in the early ''90s, the movie''s protagonists-- a tortured rabbinical student, a Russian hooker, American settlers and peaceniks, a Palestinian collaborator--might also serve as prototypes of the fissures that cut deep into Israeli society.
In The Holy Land, the country appears in microcosm as a snake pit dogged not only by the settler movement and successive intifadas, but by severe internal rifts between secular and religious Jews, and by a huge influx of foreign workers fast emerging as a new underclass. The movie, whose dialogue plays in English with detours into at least three other languages, opens with an ex post facto curse on all parties by a young Russian prostitute, then briefly dodges back 20 years to the blessing of an Orthodox Jewish baby.
Back in the present (the year 2000), the baby has grown up to be Mendy (Oren Rehany), a nerdy, evasive yeshiva student given to masturbating to the pages of Siddhartha when he should be parsing the Torah. Sent by a savvy rabbi into the fleshpots of Tel Aviv to rid his system of sin, Mendy lands in a Tel Aviv strip joint known as the Love Boat, where he promptly falls in love with the beautiful prostitute Sasha (played with a compelling mastery of Ukrainian inflection by Israeli actress Tchelet Semel).
Mendy, smitten enough to lie repeatedly to his loving parents, follows the off-duty Sasha to a boho Jerusalem dive, where he''s soon tending bar for the owner, Mike (Saul Stein), an American former war photographer whose gigantic physical presence and jovial bluster barely conceal a vulnerable, desperately self-deceiving soul.
He''s not alone--by the end of the movie not just Mike, Mendy and Sasha but several of the colorful lowlifes who haunt the bar will have the scales lifted from their eyes. Mike''s Place, as the bar is called, is a hub for marginal bottom feeders who point up every split seam in the fragile stasis that is Israel today. Prominent among them are Razi (Albert Illuz), a smooth, cell-phone-wielding, Arab wheeler-dealer who brokers property deals between Jewish settlers and Palestinian landowners, and "The Exterminator" (Arie Moskuna), a blowhard settler who totes an AK-47 wherever he goes and promises death to all Arabs even as he deals with them under the table. (In one of those bizarre juxtapositions of life and art, the real Mike''s Place, which moved to Tel Aviv some years ago when life with suicide bombers got too hot in Jerusalem, was destroyed by a terrorist bomb this past April.)
The Holy Land is not a polished movie. The overstuffed plot, which veers off into drug smuggling, settler culture and the indignities of passing an Israeli checkpoint, doesn''t always weave together well. Some of the scenes designed to illustrate the growing closeness between Mendy and Sasha, who hole up at Mike''s behest in his apartment, feel corny or contrived to satisfy commercial impulses. Yet the film, like the beleaguered country it depicts, has a raw, neurotic, brawling yet tender vitality (cinematographer Nils Kenaston achieves a haunting contrast between the landscape''s ancient beauty and the anarchic violence it frames) and a fine sense of the tangled ambiguities that both cloud and juice life in Israel today.
The Holy Land 3 1/2stars
Written and directed by Eitan Gorlin
Starring Oren Rehany, Tchelet Semel, Saul Stein and Albert Illuz.
Not rated, 96 min.