Many observant Jews in Israel and America are outraged by writer-director Eitan Gorlin's brash first feature, The Holy Land, and it's easy to see why. It's not every day you encounter a film about an uncertain rabbinical student who falls in love with a Russian prostitute, in the holy city of Jerusalem, no less. The 33-year-old filmmaker understands he may be in for even more heat. "Do I think I'll become the Salman Rushdie of the Jews?" he asked at this spring's Los Angeles Film Festival. "I don't care. Most American Jews have this (wrong) perception of the Holy Land." Certainly, Gorlin has unceremoniously turned the familiar, picture-postcard view of Jerusalem, and the hushed reverence with which it is regarded by Jews, Christians and Muslims alike, on its cultural and religious ear. The city Gorlin shows us here is not only politically flammable, it is a Sodom and Gomorrah of sex, drugs and rock & roll, its previously hidden backstreets inhabited by an international cast of nihilists, crass opportunists and flesh peddlers.
The chamber of commerce is probably as upset as the rabbis. But maybe they shouldn't be. The film's hero, a slender, bespectacled young seeker called Mendy (Oren Rehany), may sink ever deeper into the lurid demi-monde, but he never calls off his obsessive search for the divine. He is trying, he says, "to find God in life," and his search is as touching as it is authentic. Coming of age is never easy. For Mendy it's a relentless hail of traumas, social and spiritual.
For the adventurous Gorlin, who was born and raised in Washington, D.C., and has traveled extensively, making The Holy Land was evidently an act of liberation, if not outright defiance. It also shows clear signs of autobiography. The son of Orthodox parents, Gorlin was deep into his own studies to become a rabbi when he abruptly left the Zionist yeshiva he was attending in Israel and returned to the United States to enroll at the University of Pennsylvania. There, he absorbed secular writers like Dostoevsky, Hesse and Thomas Mann and, fueled by his new knowledge, set out on a five-year journey in Europe, Asia and the Middle East. He also found time to become an Israeli citizen, join the army and hold down an eye-opening, illusion-smashing job as a bartender in a teeming Jerusalem boite called Mike's Place, which, he says, attracted a broad array of ne'er do wells, fugitives and semi-romantic shadow figures whose agendas and motives were never quite clear. Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman never dropped in, but Gorlin clearly saw Mike's as the contemporary equivalent of Rick's Café, the intrigue-laden nightclub immortalized in Casablanca.
As refurbished for his film (Gorlin also fell by film school in New York, just to learn what end of a camera to look through), Mike's Place is a den of iniquity operated by a hard-bitten American (Saul Stein) who was once a war photographer. The customers are multi-ethnic, the drinking is serious, the sex is easy and the political opinions are pointed, to say the least. "The whole so-called peace process is a scam set up by the Americans for their Christian [zealots]," sneers an M-16-toting regular who calls himself The Exterminator (Aryeh Moskuna). Meanwhile, a beady-eyed profiteer named Razi (Albert Illouz) cuts shady real estate deals at the bar and, we suspect, has hooked up with extremists. Into this seething cauldron stumbles young Mendy -- having already lost half his mind at the first sight of a luscious, redheaded dancer named Sasha (Tchelet Semel) in a Tel Aviv strip joint. Unraveled by lust, Mendy's about to be undone by love and maybe manipulated by older men who see opportunity in his innocence. We won't say much more about The Holy Land's political complications, except to say they turn out to be as disturbing and anti-stereotypical as the obsessive love affair at the heart of the matter. With her cascade of red curls, her hard shell and her soft center, Sasha is a magnetically sensual presence, but she, too, harbors big questions. "You think religious people are happier than regular people?" she asks Mendy, and he seems to have no good answer. In the end, the tug o'war raging inside him between orthodoxy and dissolution, between the divine and the earthly, will probably end badly.
Let's hope the same isn't true for Eitan Gorlin's emerging career as a filmmaker. In The Holy Land he challenges religious and political taboos with dauntless ferocity, and if any of us are to better understand the Middle East in the crucial years ahead, we need writers and filmmakers as bold as Gorlin. He may be on the hot seat, but he obviously can take the heat. I can't wait to see what this fascinating new filmmaker tackles next -- protests be damned.