Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Review – La Petit Jerusalem

September 1, 2010

La Petit Jerusalem – France, 2005

We’ve seen movies like La Petit Jerusalem before, movies in which characters stand at a crossroads regarding their faith. Most of these films involve a crisis - somewhere towards the beginning of the film, the central character begins to openly question what he has been so sure of up to this point in his life. The character struggles mightily, and he is tempted to give up the path he was on, to embrace both love and passion with open and unrestrained arms. And yet by the end of the film, his faith has magically been restored, and all is right again. Karin Albou’s La Petit Jerusalem is not one of these films. In fact, it is the first film I have ever seen to put faith and psychology side by side and dare us to try to explain the difference between the two.

The film is about two sisters, Laura (Fanny Valette) and Mathilde (Elsa Zylberstein), each going through a religious crisis. As the film begins, Laura is trying to distance herself from the Sepharic Orthodox practices of her family. She attempts to do this by burying herself in the words and ideas of world-renowned philosophers. At home, she studies diligently, and in class, she gives presentations on such topics as the capabilities of reason. She has even begun emulating Kant by taking the same walk at the same time every night. She explains that doing so helps put her at peace. Moreover, she refuses, as she puts it, to “be a slave to my senses.” And so love and marriage are out of the question.

Laura’s family cannot understand her actions, for to them the only source of peace and guidance is the Torah. And yet it is the very words of that holy book that Mathilde struggles with, for she looks to them for guidance and does not find a passage that can address her concern that being true to the words of Hasham and being a good wife to her husband are somehow incompatible. Mathilde’s marriage to her husband Ariel is indeed in trouble, for after having four children, they are confronted with a rather difficult question: What do they do now with the feelings? And what, for that matter, does their faith permit them to do? In one scene, Mathilde’s husband reaches out for her in the middle of the night, and she simply turns away. Later, it’s revealed that he has begun turning to someone else. He’ll actually justify this by declaring it an act of love, reasoning that he can’t ask his wife to do something she doesn’t want to do.

La Petit Jerusalem offers viewers a fascinating look at a segment of France that is not seen on the silver screen or the nightly news often enough. The film opens with a glimpse of a ceremony next to a lake. Just what they are doing is not explained, and the ceremony is not referred to again in the film. It’s just part of their life. What is significant in the scene is the view of Laura off to one side sobbing into her hands. From the ceremony, the camera pans back and up, revealing an aerial shot of a somewhat isolated area away from the bustling streets of downtown Paris. The community that resides in this area appears to be predominately Jewish, which helps them preserve their culture but may also leave them more vulnerable to attacks by extremists. We also see evidence of the durability of long-held superstitions. Most of this evidence is provided by Laura and Mathlde’s mother (Sonia Taher), a woman prone to reminding her daughters of their Tunisian roots and how hard it was to get to France years earlier. At one point, their mother becomes extremely worried that Laura is writing her male co-worker a letter. As she explains it, one should never give one’s writing or photo to anyone, for that person will then be able to cast a spell on them. Based on events that follow, there may be some truth to that statement, but not entirely in the way she meant it.

The man who receives Laura’s letter is Djamel, one of her co-workers. He also happens to be Muslim, setting up potential clashes over faith. Can she love him? Can he love her? Well, of course they both can. The question is whether their families can accept their feelings, and unfortunately the answer to that question is never really in doubt. I suppose this is realistic, yet it is also stereotypical, a common device used to create drama in movies involving interracial romance. Writer-director Albou spends very little time developing Laura and Djamel’s relationship, apparently believing that moments in which they throw quick glances at each other and engage in short conversations while changing out of their uniforms are enough to convey how deeply their feelings run. To me, these moments were only partially successful, making the depths of Laura’s passion something that simply has to be believed, and for the most part, I believed it.

However, what was far more interesting to me was the two sisters’ struggle with their faith, in particular Laura’s desperate attempts to find something to balance her, to somehow contain the strong desires that Djamel has awakened inside her. Throughout the movie, she flip-flops between religion and philosophy, yet never quite finds the answers she is seeking in either one. Mathilde is more fortunate, for while her sister wages her struggle alone, Mathilde is able to seek both her mother’s council, as well as that of a spiritual advisor-doctor. The results of these two divergent approaches are startling and a bit heartbreaking.

La Petit Jerusalem is a strong film that asks a lot of tough questions. Is it possible to live one’s life based on both human philosophy and the words of one’s god? Is it possible to be both accepting and encouraging of physical contact while also being modest and true to the strict teachings of one’s faith? Is it possible for two people of different faiths to find happiness together? The film’s answers to these questions are not necessarily the rosy, happily-ever-after ones audiences may be used to seeing. However, they are realistic for these characters in this particular situation. Films like this are not everyone’s cup of tea, but those willing to give it shot will likely find it compelling and challenging. (on DVD from Kino)

3 and a half stars

*Le Petit Jerusalem is in French, Hebrew, and Arabic with English subtitles.

No comments: