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December 3, 2005

La Petite Jerusaelm

La Petite Jerusalem (IMDB) focuses on Laura (Fanny Valette), an eighteen-year old student living in Sarcelles, a low-income suburb of Paris known as Little Jerusalem. Laura lives with her mother, who moved to France from Tunisia, and her sister, Mathilde (Elsa Zylberstein) and her husband, Ariel, and their three children. Laura, a serious student of the Torah and of philosophy, specifically the work of Immanuel Kant, whose emphasis on the rational and knowable dominates Laura's thinking. Laura even takes evening walks every evening at 7 PM, in imitation of the legendary stories about Kant's embrace of routine. Of course, Laura's investment in the rational and her faith in the Torah comes into question later in the film when she cautiously, haltingly embarks on an affair with an unreligious Algerian Muslim, Djamel. The cinematography captures the loneliness of these suburbs rather well, particularly in the repeated shots of the empty courtyard next to Laura's building and the overhead shots of these low-income neighborhoods.

It's difficult to watch this film, with its shots of gritty streets and concrete-block housing in suburban Paris and not think about the recent riots that have dominated the news, but the film only briefly tackles what Doug Ireland calls France's lack of any "serious effort to integrate its Muslim and black populations into the French economy and culture." It's clear, of course, that Laura and Djamel's families are struggling financially. Laura's family, for example, decides aginst her renting an apartment in the city in part because it wouldn't be affordable, but also because they worry that she will depart from the family traditions. Later in the film, Ariel is beaten in a brutal attack simply because he is Jewish, prompting Mathilde to worry that Laura should not be taking her evening walks.

As this Variety review notes, Petite also deals frankly with sexual desire as well. Mathilde, in particular, struggles with her obligations to the Torah and a satisfying sexual relationship with her husband. First-time writer-director Karin Albou handles Mathilde and Ariel's cautious exploration nicely, as the two nervously and clumsily demonstrate their passion for each other in new ways. Unlike the City Paper review, which reads the bedroom scenes as implying the director's awkwardness with this material, I think she's simply capturing the caution that these characters might feel in breaking with the only practices they've known.

While I liked La Petite Jerusalem quite a bit and would certainly recommend it, it was somewhat difficult to determine what was particularly new about the film, which sometimes seemed caught up in some of the more familiar tropes of French cinema, particuarly Laura's apparent sexual awakening. In particular, I would have welcomed a more explicit exploration of the tensions that Laura and Djamel's families face as they seek to feel fully integrated in French society. These struggles--conveyed most vividly in the stark images of the separation between the bleak suburban cit├ęs and the Parisian city center--seemed crucial to the impossibility of a relationship between Laura and Djamel, but I left wishing for a more explicit exploration of that situation.

Note: La Petite Jerusalem is playing in DC as part of the Washington Jewish Film Festival and will be playing again tomorrow evening at the Aaron and Cecile Goldman Theater. If you're in DC, I'd certainly recommend catching the film. Oh, and tomorrow morning, I'll be attending Work in Progress: Scapegoat on Trial, which also looks quite interesting.

Posted by chuck at December 3, 2005 10:03 PM

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