The Holy Land Movie Review
A teenager who lives with his ultra-religious family while devoting time to Torah studies, Mendy (Oren Rehany) loves God with all his heart, but such spiritual leanings have done little to deter the festering sexual urges he finds covert opportunities to self-satisfy. At odds with himself, Mendy is recommended by his Rabbi to visit a prostitute as a means of relieving such wanton and distracting cravings. Following the wise man's advice, he visits a Tel Aviv strip club, where he instantly falls in love with the Russian working girl who services him. Sasha (Tchelet Semel) is a sprightly immigrant beauty jaded beyond her years, and her disreputable profession and brash feistiness positions her character as a counterpoint to Mendy's conservative, subservient mother. Just as Mendy's burgeoning sexuality has no place in orthodox Jewish life, Sasha's status as an immigrant means that she has no hope of assimilating into the orthodox community, leaving her with scant few respectable career prospects. Through a chance encounter, Mendy befriends Mike (Saul Stein), an American ex-war photographer (and one of Sasha's regular customers) who now runs a seedy bar in Jerusalem. Taking to Mike's gregariousness and recognizing an opportunity to better acquaint himself with Sasha, Mendy moves out of his parents' house and surreptitiously takes a bartending job at the genial Yankee's grimy establishment. The bar is home to an assortment of colorful characters - including Mike's shady Palestinian business partner Razi; an elderly drunken professor; and a roguish wild man known as the Exterminator (Arie Moskuna), who lovingly refers to his assault rifle as "my baby" - and this religious, ethnic, and class diversity speaks to the city's, and country's, schizophrenic composition. As a man attempting to reconcile his steadfast religious beliefs with his growing love for both Sasha and forbidden delights (such as drinking, smoking pot, and hanging out with people his family and Rabbi would unflinchingly decry as undesirables), Mendy becomes the embodiment of Israel's schisms. Sasha's accidental shearing of his traditional long sideburns during an impromptu haircut - and Mendy's subsequent inadvertent involvement in Mike and Razi's shifty money-making scheme - only further symbolizes the emotional and spiritual crossroads that Mendy finds himself faced with.
If The Holy Land's success is largely attributable to Gorlin's facility for creating a prevailing sense of internal and external fracturing, its shortcomings can also be traced to the director's inability to reliably control such unstable material. Despite a series of sparsely beautiful compositions, Gorlin interjects a frustrating number of awkward transitional cuts that undo the film's fleet-footed rhythm and imbue the proceedings with a tentative coarseness. Yet if this lack of polish undercuts the film's tempo, it also complements the film's aura of authenticity, which can be attributed both to Gorlin's familiarity with the locale and culture - Mendy's experiences are based in part on the director's own escapades working in a Canadian expatriate's Jerusalem dive - and the naturalistic work of Rehany and Semel as the film's cautious and skeptical young lovers. Semel, given the formidable task of turning a "hooker with a heart of gold" role into something believable, proves an especially captivating presence with a beguiling proficiency for conveying ambiguity. Her Sasha is a woman torn between heeding her uncompromising conscience and her unruly heart, a dilemma shared by the confused and troubled men - as well as the pious metropolis itself - that populate Gorlin's incisive debut.