Rough Road, Messy Map

The Holy Land, a work of rough promise and nervy ambition by 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—since the occupation of Palestinian territory began in 1967. 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 at the turn of the millennium. When I lived in Israel during the 1970s, the country was torn by war on every front and by the second-class status of its indigenous Arabs and Sephardic Jews, but still broadly cohered under a commitment not only to Zionism, but to the Labor-democratic principles of social justice realized in the kibbutz movement.

That Israel is barely recognizable in The Holy Land, in which 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 a benediction, 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), who, like so many young women in her situation, believes she's turning tricks only for as long as it takes to restore her family's finances back home.

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.

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. Are Mendy and Sasha falling in love, or are they using each other, he to resolve a religious crisis, she to lay hands on an American passport? Probing the thin line between attachment and exploitation, Gorlin shows a precocious appreciation for the old Renoir adage that everybody has his reasons. And in the film's shattering conclusion lies the sobering proposition that not just Mendy and Sasha, Mike and Razi and the Exterminator, but Israel and Palestine themselves—an unwilling attraction of opposites who are more alike than they'll admit—are charging down a road of no return. To judge by the headlines, it's hard to disagree.

The Holy Land was written and directed by Eitan Gorlin; produced by Udi Yerushalmi and Ran Bogin; and stars Oren Rehany, Tchelet Semel and Saul Stein. Now playing at Edwards University, Irvine.

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