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HOLY LAND, THE(director/writer: Eitan Gorlin; screenwriter: from a book by Eitan Gorlin “Mike’s Place, a Jerusalem Diary”; cinematographer: Nils Kenaston; editor: Josh Apter/Yair Elazar; music: Chris Cunningham; cast: Oren Rehany (Mendy), Saul Stein (Mike), Albert Houz (Razi), Aryeh Moskuna (The Exterminator), Tchelet Semel (Sasha); Runtime: 96; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Ran Bogin/Udi Yerushalmi; Hart Sharp Video; 2001-Israel-mostly in English and Hebrew, Arabic, and Russian with English subtitles)
“Gave me a better understanding of what it’s like to live in modern Israel.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Eitan Gorlin’s poorly constructed but nevertheless enthralling first feature film, The Holy Land, is both a jaundiced look at the complexities of contemporary Israeli society and a familiar universal coming-of-age tale of a nerdy 20-year-old yeshiva student, Mendy (Oren Rehany-looks like John Turturro), who is conflicted over his religious beliefs and overwhelmed by his virginity and dirty thoughts. This means the protagonist will stray from his religious roots and be uncertain about returning to his studies.

Mendy is the son of a devout Orthodox Jewish rabbi and an American-born mother, living in a small community outside of Tel Aviv. When the rabbi at school notices he’s reading Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha under his Torah, he suggests that Mendy is horny and should visit a bordello prostitute, preferably one who is not Jewish, to get that secular nonsense out of his system. Mendy obediently follows such unorthodox orders and goes to a Tel Aviv sex bar called the Love Boat and falls in love with an alluring baby-faced red-haired hooker, a cynical 19-year-old Russian-born shiksa here on a work permit using the name Sasha (Tchelet Semel). Her troubled childhood story is about a life of whoring to get ahead. At one point, while talking about how awful the Middle-Eastern men treat women, the sometimes sad-eyed tempestuous lady with an easy going smile declares “I hope the Jews and Arabs kill each other until there is nobody left.” Sasha never falls into the one-dimensional ‘whore with a heart of gold,’ as she remains ambiguous (much like the movie). We are never certain what kind of feelings she has for Mendy, as we observe that she’s both hardened and vulnerable to her brutish boss, demanding clients and odd collection of friends. But one thing is certain, she has a steely resiliency to events whereby her spirit is not broken no matter how she is abused.

Mendy is intoxicated with the pleasures of the secular world and drops out of school with his parent’s permission and moves to Jerusalem under the pretense of trying to restore his faith by praying daily at the Western Wall. But he quickly forgets his religious search and instead works as a bartender for the burly American-born Mike (Saul Stein), a client of Sasha’s. Mike’s a former war photographer, who now owns a seedy bar in Jerusalem with a clientele composed mostly of eccentrics such as an Arab smuggler named Razi (Albert Houz) and a West Bank super-patriotic settler from America known as The Exterminator (Aryeh Moskuna) because he loves carrying around his prized M-16 rifle. The macho acting Mike is as loony as a three dollar bill and at times goes into long rants between acts of generosity, but he becomes Mendy’s mentor in the ways of the wicked secular world.

Mendy wrestles with his doubts about following a religious life, his unattractiveness and his desire to be with Sasha. On Sasha’s day off, she turns up at Mike’s Place. This leads to a trip for them to the West Bank with Mike and Razi, who are involved in smuggling an unknown package in a backpack. Their business activity gives Sasha and Mendy a chance to be together and become more comfortable with each other away from work. Playfully Sasha cuts off Mendy’s ear-locks, which means he will not let his ultra-Orthodox father see him until his sideburns grow back.

The unworldly Mendy seems like a fish out of water as he wrestles with his religious doubts and fantasizes about moving to America with Sasha and escaping from all the craziness that surrounds him. He is caught in an explosive Israel where there are momentous cultural clashes between not only Arab and Jew but secular and Orthodox Jew; an ominous gangster underground; questions of who to trust in such a conflicted country; and a constant suicide-bomber threat. Though Gorlin throws a lot on the table about what’s gone wrong in Israel and how easy it is to corrupt a naive yeshiva boy, he doesn’t quite know how to pull together all the messy themes he presented and as a result he offers an unsatisfactory payoff which is shocking but never fully explored to be effective. Even though all the main players were too broadly characterized and the film was unfocused, it nevertheless caught my interest throughout and gave me a better understanding of what it’s like to live in modern Israel.

Gorlin based the movie on his own experiences, which he wrote as a semi-autobiography called “Mike’s Place, a Jerusalem Diary.” He’san Israeli expatriate who dropped out of the yeshiva as a rabbinical student to try to find his true calling by living the secular life in the United States.

The Holy Land was Grand Jury Prize winner at the 2002 Slamdance festival.

REVIEWED ON 9/16/2004 GRADE: B –

Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”