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Izzat Abou Jabal,
Hussein Al Shazli
The Tunisian-French Laura is a young woman that lives with her Orthodox Jewish family in the Jewish community in the suburbs of Paris. Her mother is a widow that left Tunisia; her sister Mathilde is having troubles in her marriage because she repressed her sexual desire based on her misunderstandings of the principles of her religion. Laura is an open minded student of philosophy and works cleaning a school in the nightshift. While Laura feels a strong passion and desire for her Muslin Algerian colleague, her sister finds that her husband had an affair with a woman and looks for an advisor that helps her to interpret the true meaning of love and the duties of a married woman. Written by
Claudio Carvalho, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
A Philosophical Exercise Is Warmly Humanized by 2 Orthodox Jewish Sisters
"La Petite Jerusalem (Little Jerusalem)" is a French intellectual exercise that manages to let feelings come through. Unlike Eric Rohmer's static arguments about mind vs. desire, as between two middle-aged guys in "Claire's Knee," here the clash of philosophies is demonstrated through a year in the intimate daily lives of two Orthodox Jewish sisters.
While the intellectual discussions are very didactically presented through these two incredibly naive, but very intelligent, women, the very frank portrait of life in an intensely religious North African immigrant community, which debut writer/director Karin Albou comes from, is moving.
The older sister, Mathilde (Elsa Zylberstein), represents the unquestioning rule follower of formal religion. She's married with four children, but has evidently never experienced nor knows anything about orgasms and she seems to have had no formal Jewish education as she just parrots lines about faith in all powerful Hashem and knows the rules of kashruth and going to the mikveh for the monthly cleansing ritual (which we see full frontally), but not much else. She is atypically isolated from the usually close women in her community who could provide her information and support. Hers seems a peasant Judaism.
The rebellious younger sister, Laura (a very appealing Fanny Valette), is some sort of nonmatriculated philosophy student, but is also teaching and working as a cleaner. She follows to the letter first one than another secular philosophers' dictates, including celibacy, as rigidly as her brother-in-law head-of-the-household is apparently following the daily prayers, weekly Shabbat and seasonal rules of Judaism. Her intellectual rigidity leads her to reject the handsome Jewish medical student who comes to her for philosophical tutoring because he is too interested in the romantics and because her mother encourages the relationship with superstitious charms. The widowed mother's faith in magic is posited as a third way, along with the warm love of her children that is challenged but never wavers.
Both sisters are faced with a heart breaking crisis of romantic passion in their lives that their philosophies don't seem to be able to reconcile. (Sorry, but it is beyond ludicrous that every woman in the household is mystified that the younger feels a certain stirring when a young handsome, dark-skinned Arab looks at her, and it's too bad that we learn so little about him except that he too is an intellectual who is torn about being a rebel within his family and culture.) But I saw that each just matured and learned that their views were immaturely narrow and ill-informed. They hadn't realized that for thousands of years folks have been reconciling human nature with intellect and finding a way to live with both, as gently pointed out by their mentors. Each learns to bend, while finding strength in their individual beliefs in unpredictable ways.
The best part of the film is the realistic depiction of celebration of the Jewish holidays amidst multicultural life within the crowded les banlieues surrounding Paris (very comparable to neighborhoods in Brooklyn NYC) where we also saw romantic tensions in "Lila Says (Lila dit ça)" and "Games of Love and Chance (L'Esquive)." The film opens with tashlich, the symbolic discarding of sins for the new year, moves on to the celebration of the Torah in Simhat Torah and on to Purim. If this was an American family we'd see a seder and menorah lighting, but here Passover and Hanukkah are represented simply as special synagogue services. Here we also see the anti-Semitic violence that has threatened French Jews since the Intifada spilled over into Europe, which I haven't seen in films before.
It is very ironic that this Tunisian Jewish family is as much refugees from North Africa as their Muslim Algerian neighbors who reject them.
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