With Mideast tensions raging, it seems surprising that it has taken so many years for a film version of the best-selling novel O Jerusalem, written by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre, to appear.
Director Elie Chouraqui ("Harrison's Flowers") and co-writer Didier Lepecheur have compressed the sprawling novel about the founding of the state of Israel into a tight 100-minute movie that skims entertainingly along the surface without hitting many depths. The film is admirable in trying to be fair to the Israeli and Arab perspectives while lamenting the enmity that endures to this day.
To honor these dual perspectives, the film focuses on the relationship of a Jewish-American man and an Arab. Bobby Goldman (JJ Feild) is a soldier returning from combat duty in World War II who meets Said Chahine (Said Taghmaoui), an Arab student in New York. They strike up a fast friendship, which is tested when they travel to Palestine to join the battle for independence from England. They quickly find themselves on opposite sides of the growing conflict between Arabs and Jews over the country that both groups consider their homeland.
The film intercuts the personal stories of the men with momentous events on the world stage. Newsreel footage is used to mark the transitions, and such real historical figures as David Ben-Gurion (Ian Holm) and Golda Meir (Tovah Feldshuh, who already has played the part in her award-winning stage production, "Golda's Balcony") share the screen with the fictional Bobby and Said. Giovanni Fiore Coltellacci's widescreen cinematography thrusts us into the action with sweeping crowd scenes and a beautiful evocation of Jerusalem in a time of transition. (Much of the film actually was shot on the island of Rhodes.) The director brings immediacy to the battle scenes, including the infamous massacre at the Arab village of Deir Yassin. To its credit, the film recognizes atrocities committed on both sides.
Where the film falters is in trying to do justice to the personal stories. Taghmaoui gives an eloquent, deeply felt performance, and Feild also is appealing, though his British accent sometimes slips through. But the characterizations are stock, and the supporting characters -- including Said's more fanatical brother and Bobby's love interest, a concentration-camp survivor -- are barely sketched at all. While many prestige pictures this fall seem bloated and overlong, this is the rare film that seems Too Short.
As it rushes from cataclysm to catastrophe while skimming over the personal dramas, O Jerusalem often gives the impression that crucial scenes have been left on the cutting room floor. The film covers some of the same ground as Otto Preminger's 1960 epic Exodus, but Preminger had 213 minutes to interweave large-scale historical set pieces and intimate romantic moments.
O Jerusalem has the virtue of energy, but it suffers from superficiality, particularly with regard to the characterizations. This weakness carries over to the portrayal of the real-life figures. Holm and Feldshuh have too little screen time to make their historical icons into anything more than cardboard figures. Even with its flaws, the film finds many moving moments as it surveys the ravages of a perpetually divided country.
Samuel Goldwyn Films
A Les Films de l'Instant, Cinegram, FIlms 18 Ltd., Titania Produzioni, G.G. Israel Studios Ltd. and France 2 Cinema co-production
Director: Elie Chouraqui
Screenwriters: Elie Chouraqui, Didier Lepecheur
Based on the novel by: Dominique Lapierre, Larry Collins
Producers: Andre Djaoui, Elie Chouraqui, Jean-Charles Levy, Jean Frydman, Andy Grosch
Executive producer: David Korda
Director of photography: Giovanni Fiore Coltellacci
Production designer: Sue Booth
Music: Stephen Endelman
Co-producers: Jeff Geoffray, Walter Josten, Jeff Konvitz, Mark Damon, Marcus Schofer
Costume designer: Mimi Lempicka
Editor: Jacque Witta
Bobby Goldman: JJ Feild
Said Chahine: Said Taghmaoui
Roni: Daniel Lundh
Jacob: Mel Raido
David Levin: Patrick Bruel
Hadassah: Maria Papas
David Ben-Gurion: Ian Holm
Golda Meir: Tova Feldshuh
Abdel Khader: Peter Polycarpou
Isaac Roth: Elie Chouraqui
Amin Chahine: Jamie Harding
Running time -- 100 minutes
MPAA rating: R