It’s always good fun to see a boy wax romantic over the first girl to give him a handjob–and if the boy should be a black-hatted Jew, the fun is only improved. For secular viewers, there’s the hint of a freak show to the proceedings; for those of us with religious ties, the delicious frisson of self-recognition.
And what if the yeshiva boy has preserved his pallor despite a Mediterranean sun? Then you’ve got Eitan Gorlin’s first feature, The Holy Land: a sometimes heartbroken, sometimes furious coming-of-age drama, set in a bleak and outrageous version of Israeli society.
Gorlin made The Holy Land on a budget of approximately $1.98, shooting mostly in somebody’s Jerusalem apartment and on outdoor locations that he apparently used fast, before anyone asked to see a permit. He also borrowed some television news footage for the opening montage: a rapid-fire sequence of street demonstrations, tank forays, rubble, ambulances, charred human remains. The not-quite-apposite voiceover that accompanies these images, delivered in high-pitched, Russian-accented English, turns out to be the commentary of the handjob giver, an immigrant turned prostitute who is the film’s de facto narrator. “Men in the Middle East are primitive and stupid,” she declares in the flat tones of experience. “I hope the Jews and Arabs kill each other till there’s no one left.”
From this uplifting prologue, we proceed via shock cuts to meet our protagonist, Mendy (Oren Rehany), who is first seen in extreme close-up at his mother’s breast and then (twenty years later) at the toilet bowl, masturbating over a bit of exposed cleavage in a newsmagazine. First impressions count. You don’t quickly forget the moisture on Mendy’s smooth face, the shallowness of his breath, the muscular tension behind the receding chin. For those who are familiar with the Orthodox world, though, none of this is as disturbing as the toast that Mendy’s father offered a few moments earlier. “To the last Tisha b’Av,” he said–that is, to the last day of mourning for the destruction of the Temple. It seems that Young Mr. News Photo has been brought up among people who expect the Messiah to ride in any day now and toss the Muslims off the Mount.
Gorlin’s barbed conceit is that everyone in The Holy Land inhabits some such territory of the imagination. For some, like the Uzi-toting settler known as The Exterminator (Arie Moskuna), Jerusalem has already received the Messiah and is fit to resume animal sacrifice. For others, like booming, bag-of-testosterone Mike (Saul Stein), Israel is coterminous with a cavelike bar–he calls it Mike’s Place–where he can preside over his own little world. Mendy’s fantasy begins to take shape in a strip club in Tel Aviv, The Love Boat. There he meets round-faced, frizzy-haired Sasha (Tchelet Semel) and gets from her the two-second-long “massage” that sets off the rest of the plot.
By now, you’re probably wondering about the Palestinian characters. I assure you that they’re present, they’re important to the story, and they’ve got elaborate fantasies of their own. But Gorlin finds the Palestinians too close to the Israelis, too locked into struggle with them, to serve as the outside observers he needs. He is a runaway of sorts, an American-born Jew who studied in an army-friendly yeshiva and soldiered in an Israeli tank unit before breaking away from both Orthodoxy and militant Zionism. Now, apparently, he wants to see Israel through the eyes of someone who surpasses him in detachment; and so he gives us Sasha, a young Russian trapped in a place she hates.