Countries in crisis often produce their most involving films. As it was with Eastern bloc nations like Poland and Czechoslovakia during the Soviet occupation, so it is today with the state of Israel.
As that nation wrestles with its agonizing relationship with the Palestinians and the dynamics of its own divided population, its filmmakers have been doing some of their finest work — films like Joseph Cedar's "Time of Favor" and Amos Gitai's "Kadosh." You can add "The Holy Land" to that group.
While it may be technically an American film — its U.S.-born writer-director Eitan Gorlin now lives over here after having spent considerable time in Israel — "The Holy Land" was shot entirely in that troubled nation and has a strong feeling for the chaotic texture of Israeli life.
It's not that "The Holy Land," which won a major prize at Slamdance and an Independent Features Project Someone to Watch nomination for its director, isn't a problematic film. It has the awkwardness that characterizes many first features and, as befits a culture that does not always prize refinement, some of its performances and situations are not as subtle as they should be.
Balancing that, however, is "Holy Land's" ability to capture the messiness, the contradictions of Israeli life, the sense of anger and frustration that is so prevalent in this non-melting pot where different cultures defiantly refuse to give up their defining characteristics no matter how hot it gets.
It's almost as if Gorlin felt compelled to give us this singular look at unsettling, abrasive aspects of Israeli culture, to provide images, such as a glimpse of an Orthodox young man masturbating, not previously put up on the screen.
Like "Time of Favor" and "Kadosh," "The Holy Land" uses the strictly religious Hasidic community as a partial setting. Because it is so unbending, so resistant to the outside world's blandishments of modernity, this is a group to which filmmakers are drawn for its metaphorical possibilities as much as its distinctive look.
"The Holy Land's" net, however, is much wider than this. The film begins with a particularly savage voice-over monologue by an unseen woman insisting "the only reason Jews bring in so many Russians is to do dirty jobs Arabs won't do." The male sex is this woman's particular bête noir. "Men in the Middle East are primitive and stupid," she says, adding as if she means it, "I hope Jews and Arabs kill each other until nobody is left."
A young rabbinical student named Mendy (Oren Rehany) is the film's protagonist. After his rabbi catches him reading "Siddhartha" and dreaming of women when he should be studying, he calls him into his office and tells him there is an obscure portion of the Talmud that offers an extreme solution for situations like his. Go to another town, visit a harlot and get it all out of your system.
Mendy goes off to downtown Tel Aviv and a strip club-massage parlor called the Love Boat. There he meets Sasha (Tchelet Semel), whose voice we soon recognize as the woman from the scabrous opening monologue.
Sasha is a 19-year-old semi-enslaved prostitute from the Ukraine who can play flirty but is basically all business. The naive Mendy is, not surprisingly, completely smitten but with no idea of how to proceed. "So," he asks her, deadly serious, "do you like working here?"
Things pick up for Mendy, though not necessarily for the film, when a boisterous American named Mike (broadly played by Saul Stein) comes on the scene. A super-gregarious former war photographer who presumably "saw too much," Mike now runs a Jerusalem boîte he proudly calls "the craziest bar east of Sarajevo."
Mike takes Mendy under his wing and soon the young man, after telling his parents he wants to move to Jerusalem to get his holy spark back, is hanging out with the regulars. This dubious cross-section of humanity includes a snobbish professor, a troublesome drunk, an M-16-toting settler who calls himself the Exterminator (Arie Moskuna) and a Palestinian wheeler-dealer named Razi (Albert Illuz) introduced as "the only Arab who loves Dylan."
Sasha, as it turns out, hangs out at Mike's whenever she's in town, and the not-reality-based relationship between these two young people is the best acted, most intriguing part of the film. It's never clear exactly what is on Sasha's mind, which of the several forces at play in her life she is giving free rein to at any given moment, and actress Semel is able to convincingly move back and forth from hooker to giddy teen.
"The Holy Land" is a downbeat, pessimistic story with a kind of pitiless quality that fits the action. If it's also a messy story, peopled with characters who don't know whom to trust, it almost seems as if its reflecting the current state of Israeli affairs.
If you are looking for a film about idealistic kibbutzniks and their love of the land, you have not come to the right place.
'The Holy Land'
MPAA rating: Unrated
Times guidelines: Adult themes, nudity, sexual situations
Oren Rehany ... Mendy
Tchelet Semel ... Sasha
Saul Stein ... Mike
Arie Moskuna ... The Exterminator
Albert Illuz ... Razi
Released by CAVU Pictures. Director Eitan Gorlin. Producers Udi Yerushalmi, Ran Bogin. Executive producers Isil Bagdadi, Michael Sergio. Screenplay Eitan Gorlin. Cinematographer Nils Kenaston. Editors Yair Elazar, Josh Apter. Costumes Laura Dinolsky. Music Chris Cunningham. Production design Carl Stensel. Running time: I hour, 36 minutes.
In limited release.