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When Mendy Meet Sasha: Oren Rehany's life changes in a hurry when he runs into Tchelet Semel in 'The Holy Land.'

Israeli Pie

A rabbinical student meets a hard-working prostitute in the sexy and smart 'Holy Land'

By Richard von Busack

IF HARRY LIME from The Third Man is right, times of social turmoil should make for better art. The way Lime put it was that in Italy 30 years of warfare under the Borgias had produced the Renaissance, while 500 years of democracy and peace in Switzerland had produced the cuckoo clock. Israel, with a load of problems, may be ready to start creating some urgent, exciting films.

The Holy Land is mostly about the sexual awakening of the nebbishy Orthodox Jew Mendy (Oren Rehany). Mendy--sheepish, sweet and utterly inexperienced--functions as the Jason Biggs character in this Israeli Pie story. Though he's dedicated to the Torah, he's nervous and obsessed. His rabbi gives him leave to go visit a prostitute, as long as it's in another town, so no one will see him and be scandalized. (The same obscure clause in rabbinical lore is the subject of the title story in Nathan Englander's collection For the Relief of Unbearable Urges.)

This mama's boy finds the bad side of Tel Aviv fast. He meets the lap dancer Sasha (Israeli actress Tchelet Semel, with a Russian stage accent so charmingly like Rocky & Bulwinkle's Natasha Fatale it's tempting to recommend this movie on the basis of her voice alone). A businesslike massage follows, and it's love at first squirt.

Mendy follows Sasha around from the club where she's indentured, kept afloat by vague dreams of getting back to her homeland. (In a voice-over footage of the fighting between Israeli soldiers and Palestinians, Sasha comments that she hopes that they all kill each other and then she can go home.)

Mendy's hopeless pursuit of this blonde, blasé Russian makes him drop out of school. He becomes an assistant at the Jerusalem bar where Sasha comes, sometimes for business, sometimes for pleasure. The bar is run by Mike, a Greek-American ex-war correspondent. As Mike, Saul Stein gives the least successful performance in the film, the one that seems most like a caricature of an American--five o'clock shadow, brashness, a fixed smile, always with the glad hand.

Mike's bar is a neutral zone where both Palestinians and Israelis can have a drink in peace. One old Arab customer considers himself quite a liquid-eyed ladies' man. Another regular is a transplanted American gun nut, a pudgy, bald rifle-bearing zealot who calls himself "The Exterminator." Mike knows the terrain--and has a little Thai-stick-importing business with the local Arabs--so the scholarly Mendy gets a chance to see a bit of how the world works.

What does the title of this film mean? The country of a lover's body? Mike's bar imparts a species of holiness; peace and fellowship exist there. It's a more human place than the monuments to faith we see: the remote telescopic-lens view of the Wailing Wall and the Dome of the Rock.

"Let's go to the Holy Land," Mike suggests, and he, Mendy and Sasha take a field trip to see what the land of Abraham must have looked like; they picnic in some ruins, and Mike picks up some smuggled marijuana from the local shepherds. Like so much in Israel, the idea of holiness is a matter of conjecture. In a sourball, but perfectly apt, ending, Mendy's final decision--to leave for America with his prostitute lover, or to go back to his God--becomes immaterial.

Director Eitan Gorlin, is an American-born, Israel army vet. He trained to become a rabbi but became a filmmaker instead. Gorlin comments that his film is like a Jewish parable he heard in school, a reversal of the legend of the Buddha. In the Jewish version, the prince who leaves his family and his walled city in hopes of finding experience isn't enlightened, he is manhandled and beaten and crawls back behind the walls to die, but not before he reconciles himself with his father (and the god of his fathers).

It may be that Gorlin, for all of his faith, recognizes this religious parable of submission as a truly horrible story. (Not everyone with religion would.) Among the many and moany boutique films around, The Holy Land makes you feel as if you're seeing an underground film, something you haven't seen before, something, perhaps, you didn't think you wanted to see. If only someone would make a movie about America that looked at our faith and institutions with such shrewdness!

From Tel Aviv's night-town to the marketplace, The Holy Land displays an Israel that hasn't been seen before; it's foreign but familiar. Rehany's comic yearning, and Semel's lazy affability make them an oddly likely couple. Both of them are removed from the mainstream of life, both have their own holy layer of honesty under a profane, self-protective; cover of lies.

The Holy Land (Unrated; 100 min.), directed and written by Eitan Gorlin, photographed by Nils Kenaston and starring Tchelet Semel and Oren Rehany, opens Friday at the Towne in San Jose.

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From the October 9-15, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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