Thursday, August 23, 2007

Coming in October: O Jerusalem

“If God is not here, he is nowhere,” says a character in O Jerusalem, while looking over the city which holds the holiest sites of the world’s three major religions. O Jerusalem, a new film based on the novel by Dominique Lapierre and Larry Collins dramatizing early events in the founding of the State of Israel, tries to avoid taking sides in the greater political debate, instead focusing on personal dramas set against the historical backdrop.

Of course, the filmmakers may make a good faith effort at being honest brokers, but there are indeed some differences in how each side is portrayed. The central relationship of the film is a the friendship between Bobby Goldman, an American Jew newly returned from WWII, and Saïd Chahine, a Palestinian Arab studying law in America. They become fast friends in New York, but find themselves called to Jerusalem to take sides in the impending conflict, as the British prepare to withdraw.

Goldman and Chahine are used even-handedly to humanize their respective sides in the conflict. Each sees tragedy first hand, yet both men retain some remnant of their former friendship. In representing their comrades, French Jewish director and co-screenwriter Elie Chouraqui seems to give the Arab Palestinians a slight advantage. While both sides kill in the heat of battle, it is only atrocities committed by Jewish extremists at Deir Yassin that are vividly pictured on screen (although the resulting horror felt by Goldman and the Haganah regulars is made clear).

Certainly, the Holocaust figures prominently in Jerusalem, but it is not graphically depicted, except in brief archival footage. Goldman’s girlfriend movingly tells of her experiences in a concentration camp. However, the filmmakers show no images of Arab terrorist attacks, and decline to explain the fact that the Arab forces arrayed against Israel had also allied themselves with Hitler and the National Socialists.

The personal drama of Jerusalem is often quite moving. It is probably one of the better films portraying the loss and grief of war. People were literally crying during the final scenes last night. The dramatic situations are effectively underscored by Stephen Endelman’s music. His orchestral themes have a logical Middle Eastern flavor, often complimented by strings and voices.

Coming in under two hours, Jerusalem is quite manageable for a historical docudrama. If anything, it seems to end a little early from a historical point of view, with events on screen essentially ending with the cease fire of June 11, 1948, leaving the rest of the history to be summarized by voice-over. It is however, a point of stark dramatic climax for the film’s characters.

Saïd Taghmaoui brings real intensity to the role of Chahine and J.J. Feild seems to grow into the role of Goldman as the film progresses. The best known actors of Jerusalem have smaller parts based on historical figures. Tovah Feldshuh seems to own the role of Golda Meir, having portrayed her during a successful Broadway run for the one-woman show Golda’s Balcony, and she is convincing returning to the role here. Tom Conti wrings every drop of dignity and regret he can from the small role of Sir Allan Cunningham, the British High Commissioner. Sir Ian Holm however, is less effective as David Ben-Gurion in a performance that comes across as a bit of a caricature.

Jerusalem is often quite moving, and it is consistently interesting to watch the filmmakers walk the tightrope between each side of the conflict. While Arab Palestinians might have a slight edge in the film’s historical treatment, the film is far from being anti-Israel, as it seems to personally identify closer with its Israeli characters. Israelis would probably settle for such media treatment every chance they can. Audiences can judge for themselves when O Jerusalem opens in New York on October 17th. (The French trailer is available here.)