The Holy Land
review by Elias Savada, 5 December 2003

What do a nonchalant  Russian prostitute and a wavering Orthodox Jewish rabbinical student have in common. Quite a bit, as shown in first-time filmmaker Eitan Gorlin's interesting study of two opposites colliding as unlikely sweethearts amid a globalized Israeli landscape and an embattled Jerusalem. 20-year-old Mendy Weinbaum is a Yeshiva student restless that his studies are being affected by an increasing number of masturbatory urges. When he brings this disheartening morsel of information before his astute Talmudic scholar, he is shocked that the rabbi suggests the extremely unorthodox advice that he visit a harlot, preferably a gentile woman, to cleanse his system. Think of all the male Jewish neurotics out there who might have had more normal teen lives if their spiritual tutor offered similar advice instead of forcing them into angst-laden preparations for their bar mitzvahs!

But as we start out on our visit through The Holy Land, our hero's peep into the Tel Aviv strip bar/brothel "Mike's Place" (modeled after the popular "watering" hole of the same name where Gorlin once worked as a bartender) instead opens up a floodgate of sexual promiscuity as he befriends the curly orange-red haired 19-year-old émigré Sasha. Her full body massage irons out more than a few sexual kinks. And while her impression of the primitive and stupid nature of Israeli men, generally, remains the same ("I hope the Jews and Arabs kill each other until no one is left."), it doesn't intimidate Mendy, who takes a pedestrian job working for Mike, the establishment's owner, and makes an increasing number of moves on the object of his desire. His Talmudic studies and religious family in B'nai B'rak are fully tossed into the lost cause bin.

As star-crossed lovers the stunning Tchelet Semel and her co-star Oren Rehany hit all the unconventional highs that explain why Gorlin's refreshing debut won the Grand Jury prize at the 2002 Slamdance International Film Festival. She's nervous. He's bashfully shy, then secretly jealous at the other (paying) men in her life. Their extended family encompasses the hard-drinking Mike (American indie regular Saul Stein), a former war photographer; Razi (Albert Illuz), a Arab wheeler dealer entrepreneur who believes God resides in his penis; and "The Exterminator" (Arie Moskuna), a nameless American war zealot who has made aliyah to Israel and now is perfectly at home with the M-16 rifle cradled in his arms. He sleeps with it under his pillow. Among the group, there are ulterior political motives adrift that most viewers won't realize are hiding behind the increasingly romantic smokescreen of young love. The film's alarming end brings this message out full force.

Rehany cuts Mendy from nice sad sack mold. He's uncomfortably anxious to turn Sasha's many admirers away from his pretty woman. His gullibility is endearing. It's also his downfall, particularly when Mike and Razi maneuver him to help them smuggle a package into Jerusalem while the group is off in a nomadic wasteland off the road to Hebron. Mendy stumbles about as he tries to grab hold of his new lifestyle and cast off his old clothes. Yet it's not until after a few powerful tokes on a hash pipe that his body goes limp and Sasha breaks the last discernable link to his nearly abandoned past, cutting off his long sidelocks of hair, reluctantly forcing him out of the hedonist's closet in which he has been hiding from his parents and fellow students. Watching over his shoulder and a ton of guilt.

Distributed by the smallish Cavu Pictures, founded by New York filmmakers Michael Sergio and Isil Bagdali, The Holy Land is their second release, having opened in New York back in July, yet continues moving about the country. It was playing in Florida and Wisconsin in early December.

The Holy Land espouses love and sex and in the wrong, or right places, and doesn't flinch, even if Gorlin's story wanders off into an occasional dramatic desert. Be warned that you may squirm from the sexual frankness and explicitness, but you can't close your eyes to this candidly untraditional relationship blossoming against Israel's bleak, war-torn landscape.

Written and
Directed by:

Eitan Gorlin

Oren Rehany
Tchelet Semel
Saul Stein
Arie Moskuna
Albert Illuz

R - Restricted.
Under 17 requires
parent or adult






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