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Rough Road, Messy Map 

The all-too-human comedy of The Holy Land

Thursday, Jul 31 2003
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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.

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THE HOLY LAND | Written and directed by EITAN GORLIN

Produced by UDI YERUSHALMI and RAN BOGIN | Released by Cavu Pictures | At Laemmle’s Fairfax, Laemmle’s Town Center 5 and Laemmle’s Playhouse 7

Eitan Gorlin ON THE ROADS NOT (YET) TAKEN

(Photo by Ted Soqui)

At 34 years old, Eitan Gorlin has lived much of the material contained in his first feature, The Holy Land. Like all the marginal characters who frequent the bolshie Jerusalem bar where the movie is set, Gorlin has the habit of dissent. Raised in a modern-Orthodox home outside Washington, D.C., Gorlin embarked after his bar mitzvah on “a string of minirebellions that I hope,” this articulate, engaging, motor-mouthed writer-director says with a grin, “are long finished.” Gorlin is skittish around the word autobiographical, but it’s hard not to see a chunk of his own early crises in his lead character, Mendy, a rabbinical student torn between faith and the desire to live a little. In his teens, Gorlin swung far to the right of his parents, gravitating first to ultra-Orthodox Judaism (at a summer camp in the Catskills), then to right-wing Zionism at a kibbutz-affiliated yeshiva in Israel, which, he says wryly, “was a way to say, ‘Oh, that’s Judaism, I was just misunderstanding it, actually we’re all warriors and prophets.’”

Back in the U.S., Gorlin studied history and political science, then, having decided that Israel and Jews were not for him, took off for an extended tour of Asia. But a brief stop in Jerusalem for his brother’s wedding turned into a three-year stay, during which he served a year in the army and tended bar at Mike’s Place, the setting for The Holy Land. (In one of those bizarre juxtapositions of life and art that often beset countries in extremis, the real Mike’s Place, which had moved to Tel Aviv when life with suicide bombers got too hot in Jerusalem, was destroyed by a bomb last April.) Ironically, when Gorlin came to shoot the movie, Israel and the Palestinians were enjoying a peace both sides hoped would prove permanent. “The borders were open,” says Gorlin, “and everybody was talking about how Tel Aviv was going to be the capital of the Middle East. Palestinians were coming back from exile, and there was still interaction between Arabs and Jews.”

That makes The Holy Land, which is based on Gorlin’s novella about his experiences during the first intifada, a work of tragic prophecy, for the “lasting peace” turned out to be no more than a lull in the hostilities and the escalation of Israel’s ongoing internal crises. Gorlin spent time with hardcore settlers in the occupied territories. He visited the brothels where, under Israel’s surprisingly lax prostitution laws, naive East European girls like Sasha in the movie are lured by the promise of making pots of dough to take back to their families. He met collaborators like Razi, cynical operators who were loyal to no one, not even their families. And he’s still, like Mendy, carrying on a dialogue with the religion he has left behind, yet respects for what it has given him.

The Holy Land, which has won several awards and was the top-grossing per-screen independent film on its opening weekend at the Angelika in New York, has not yet played in Israel. Gorlin hopes it will, but he doesn’t see himself returning to Israel to live. Like many intellectuals there, he’s not optimistic about the prospects for peace: Too much blood has been spilled. Israel, he feels, is insufficiently committed to giving back land and rights to the Arabs, and both sides may have gone down paths they can’t retrace. Still, in Israel even despair comes laced with utopian dreams. “A novelist friend of mine wrote a short story,” says Gorlin, “about some sort of epidemic that knows no borders. When most Israelis and Palestinians have died and someone has found an antidote, and once people realize there are no borders and that both sides are suffering, the survivors create a new country called Isra-stine.”

E. T.

Reach the writer at etaylor@laweekly.com

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