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.
She’s a good character, this whore with a heart of scarred muscle. Watch her react with blank incredulity when Mendy shows up at The Love Boat for the second time, bearing a gift. Clock the seconds that pass, before she pushes herself to say, “Oh! A present!” Notice, too, how she later plays pranks on her yeshiva boy and then regrets having taunted him, stands up for him (because his sweetness leaves him defenseless) and attacks him (because his sweetness is a club he holds over her). You can feel Gorlin himself switch sides during these exchanges, sometimes identifying with Mendy, sometimes stepping back to look at the situation through Sasha’s cold eyes. He can pull off the trick because Semel and Rehany are both wonderfully transparent in their roles. The characters may posture for one another, but these two young actors never play to the camera–unlike Stein, whose Mike is vivid but too much the creation of an Actor.
Of course, Mendy’s adventure finishes badly, and with a neatness that’s all the more jarring for the lifelike disorder that’s come before. Gorlin needs to learn about endings. And I’ll bet he will–because he’s already got brains, sensitivity, conscience, rhythm, two-thirds of a good touch with actors and plenty of nerve. Whatever his slip-ups as a first-time filmmaker, Gorlin succeeds in making The Holy Land come to scandalous life, before he makes it go boom.
Rougher than The Holy Land, even more cheaply made and also more urgent, is an hourlong documentary by Yulie Cohen Gerstel, My Terrorist, currently going on a national tour following a run at New York’s Film Forum.
Greeted with outrage last year when it opened in Israel, My Terrorist recounts how Gerstel has sought to help Fahad Mihyi, who, as a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, helped put shrapnel into her arm in 1978 while murdering the friend who stood next to her. This attack took place on the streets of London, where Gerstel had just arrived as part of an El Al flight crew. She does not minimize the chronic fear that settled in her, the sense of guilt at having survived, the renewed determination to make Israel strong. (A member of a family that came to Palestine some 150 years ago, Gerstel literally grew up on Israel Defense Force Street.) The core of her film, though, is the story of how she slowly came to abhor what Israel was doing to the Palestinians; to see who was the victim and who the victimizer; to reject strongman solutions. By 2000, she was ready to begin corresponding with Mihyi, who was still in Dartmoor. When she became convinced he was a changed man, she volunteered to advocate his release–to the disgust of other survivors and of victims’ families, whose views she has bravely put in the picture.
With its drippy music and desktop editing, My Terrorist may give the false impression that it’s Gerstel’s first film. That’s not necessarily bad. The picture seems so raw that you might imagine she learned to use a video camera solely to tell this story. Personal but never self-indulgent, compelling and compulsive in equal measure, My Terrorist is that rarity, a necessary film.
But enough of artlessness. July has also brought two intriguing movies–The Cuckoo and Madame Satã–that give you sociopolitical content and eye candy, too.
The Cuckoo, written and directed by Alexander Rogozhkin, is a tale set in the remote forests of Lapland toward the end of World War II. Two of the movie’s characters are soldiers, who are on the loose after escaping death at the hands of their own forces. They are Veiko (Ville Haapasalo), a young Finnish student pressed into service with the German army, and Ivan (Viktor Bychkov), a middle-aged Russian who was deemed politically unreliable. Both take shelter with Anni (Anni-Kristiina Juuso), who would be your standard-issue lonely farm widow, except that she speaks the language of the Sami people, herds reindeer and enjoys a good old pagan romp with both men the forest has sent to her.
Cinematically, The Cuckoo is most interesting for its splendid scenery and silent-movie affinities. (The characters have no common language, so they make do with gestures and pigheadedness.) Thematically, it’s arresting for Rogozhkin’s decision to make his Soviet soldier the heavy: Ivan just can’t get it through his head that Veiko is not a fascist. Considering the specific context of this story, rather than the general demands of mush-brained allegory, I think Rogozhkin is too hard on Ivan. Fortunately, though, The Cuckoo amounts to more than an antiwar fable. It’s also a drama of isolation and sexual jealousy, a comedy of miscommunication and feminine wiles, a visual ode to the rough beauty of the northern lakes and mountains.
Finally, let me highly recommend a film about a different type of rough beauty: Karim Aïnouz’s Madame Satã. Set in the 1930s in Rio de Janeiro’s Lapa neighborhood, where every imaginable itch found a scratch it could afford, Madame Satã is based on the life of João Francisco dos Santos (1900-76): a proud and forceful gay black man, famous on the streets as a brawler, thief, killer, foster father and drag artiste. If dos Santos sounds like a complex package to put on film, be assured that Aïnouz’s star, Lázaro Ramos, is nothing short of riveting in the role, and that the production wraps around him like so much shimmering crepe and spangles. The cinematography, by the extraordinary Walter Carvalho, is deep and rich during the many nocturnal scenes, full of sepia textures in the daylight. The direction is languorous, subjective, brooding, elliptical. Madame Satã isn’t content to re-create this man’s world. It wants to put you into his skin–and to an amazing degree, it succeeds.
Screening Schedule: The Nation has received some complaints about my previous column, which was devoted to reflections on Legally Blonde 2 and Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle. A waste of ink, the letter-writers claim–which is to say, they’d rather not think about the world we’re living in.
Fair enough. For those who prefer to ignore contemporary culture, wonderful retrospectives are available. In Manhattan, the Museum of Modern Art is devoting the summer to old-style repertory programming at its Gramercy Theatre. For example, you can see archival prints of three great films by Kenji Mizoguchi–Utamaro and His Five Women, Ugetsu and The Life of Oharu–July 31 or August 2. For information: (212) 777-4900 or www.moma.org. If Brooklyn is more convenient for you, consider the BAMcinématek, currently showing a series of Aki Kaurismäki’s films (which are of recent vintage but would rather not be). Leningrad Cowboys Meet Moses, La vie de bohème, The Match Factory Girl, Drifting Clouds and Juha are all on view July 22-27. For information: (718) 636-4100 or www.bam.org.
I leave America’s other cities to your initiative.