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Holy Land

A separate piece-nik

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The first time we see Mendy, the son of an Israeli rabbi and his American émigré wife, he's enjoying the sight of a woman's bare breast. The woman is his mother, and Mendy is barely a week old. The next time we see him, he's looking at the same sort of thing. Only now Mendy is 20, wearing the black attire of his Hasidism, and he's alone in a bathroom -- a magazine in one hand, his agitated member getting a workout with the other.

Eitan Gorlin's Holy Land then follows Mendy (Oren Rehany) through a familiar rite of passage: He leaves home for Jerusalem to study, falls in puppy-love with a bad girl he can't have, and learns life lessons from more experienced older men, who inhabit a world of hookers and hookahs, and who live secret lives that cast dangerous shadows over Mendy's, and his nation's, tranquility.

There's Mike (Saul Stein), the gregarious, barrel-chested American who owns a neighborhood bar. He was a war photographer in Sarajevo, until those damned peacekeepers stole his livelihood. Razi is an Arab and just one of the guys. The Exterminator is a sanguine, rotund, rifle-toting Jew. And Sasha (Tchelet Semel) is the object of desire, a call-girl from the Ukraine who likes sweet Mendy but also bitterly resents his kindness and virtue (which he's willing to lose -- if Sasha really loves him).

Don't worry if this doesn't sound like the Israel you read about in the newspapers. Before it's over, Gorlin's coming-of-age movie turns abruptly to the headlines. His denouement -- which is either a caveat or a cheap trick -- transforms a story of adventurous solipsism (Mendy reads Hesse in Torah class) into one that leaves you with the impression that Israelis can't allow certain earthly things to distract them from what really matters: Jewish history, Jewish religion, and the immutable struggle for freedom that governs every single moment of every single day. (Peace, says one man, is merely a capitalist ploy for tourism.)

Gorlin's conclusion in Holy Land is needlessly cruel, although certainly true, while all that comes before it is certainly familiar, if somewhat fresh because of its setting. Mike's bar -- with its cantankerous, grizzled old men, and its Babel of conversation -- feels like a cross between a beatnik joint and a medieval bacchanal, and the way Mendy's teacher advises him to sate his erotic frustration intrigues you with whether a holy man would ever really suggest such a thing. Filmed with some useful rough indie-cinema edges, Holy Land ultimately asks you to place yourself on a continuum that begins with the jaded Sasha, who declares, "I hope the Jews and Arabs kill each other until nobody's left," and ends with gentle Mendy, whose destiny becomes an anthem. In Hebrew, Arabic, Russian and English, with subtitles.

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