La Petite Jerusalem

(This post appeared in a different form in this week's issue of Jewish Week.)

La Petite Jerusalem
which opened this weekend in NYC, represents the fortuitous intersection of two significant trends, one academic, the other cinematic. The latter is easier to describe: La Petite Jerusalem is the lastest in a new wave of films about Orthodox life made by Orthodox Jews. Films like Ushpizin, the documentaries of Anat Zuria and the collaborations of Menachem Daum and Oren Rudavsky are something new in Jewish film, a chance for the traditionally observant to speak for themselves through movies.

Karin Albou, the writer-director of La Petite Jerusalem, grew up in the banlieues, the grim high-rise projects outside Paris that birthed last summer's riots. Like the protagonist of her film, Laura (Fanny Valette), she was the rebellious daughter of Algerian Jews (Tunisian in the film); she was the one who studied philosophy (and later filmmaking), who tried to reconcile modern thought with Judaism.

That may be why the primary thematic focus of La Petite Jerusalem is on one of the recurring themes in philosophical writing since the '90s, the embodiment of thought and belief, the relationship between human physical reality and spirituality. Although her characters state that concern only obliquely, it is at the heart of the film from its opening shots of Laura getting dressed in the morning, seen in extreme close-ups that insist on her physical presence without eroticizing her.

It is an opening that guides us to the central concern of this unusual, ardent film, the relationship between women, their bodies and their sexuality. Laura is a would-be neo-Kantian, trying to convince herself that passion is illusory, that one can live in the mind alone. Her older sister, Mathilde (Elsa Zylberstein), is struggling with the realization that her husband (Bruno Tedeschini) is cheating on her because their sex life is so unsatisfying. When Laura takes up with Djamel (Hedi Tillette de Clermont-Tonnerre), an Algerian ex-journalist who works as a janitor at the school at which she is a cleaning woman, matters come to a head.

Given this set-up and Albou's decision to place the action in 2002, a time of anti-Semitic violence by North African immigrants throughout France, it wouldn't be a surprise if the outcome were pure melodrama, but Albou sidesteps the temptations of obvious violence and heartbreak to explore a much more nuanced set of options. Thus, Mathilde gets counseling from an older woman who works at the mikveh (Aurore Clement), who urges her to enjoy her own sexuality, telling her, "It's not a suggestion, it's a commandment, it's [Jewish] law," while Laura is finally forced by circumstances to separate from her family, but without breaking with them. There are no fatal blow-ups, no Romeo-and-Juliet self-immolations, just the quiet moving forward that comes with real life.

Albou injects this seemingly simple set of situations with a powerful undercurrent of female sexuality and with images of women at ease with their bodies and those of the women around them. The repeated scenes of Mathilde being examined by the woman at the mikveh prior to her immersion are telling, de-eroticized by the sheer ordinariness of the gestures, yet made beautiful by the Vermeer lighting of cinematographer Laurent Brunet. The conversations between the sisters and between Laura and her mother (Sonia Tahar) are earnest, frank and funny,suffused with a sense of shared love and concern.

At the same time, La Petite Jerusalem is redolent of the real world of Judaism as a lived faith, a faith that infuses spirituality into every aspect of daily life, something one seldom gets in even the most sympathetic films set in the Orthodox community. That is why the idea of an embodied spirituality resonates so powerfully in this film; for these women, sense of self is intimately linked (in every sense of the phrase) to how they practice their faith. It's a very different kind of feminism than American audiences are used to, but a firm statement of feminine empowerment all the same (albeit one that could be usefully contextualized by a viewing of Zuria's "Purity" and "Sentenced to Marriage," but that's another story for another time).

Finally, the warm, beating heart of La Petite Jerusalem is Fanny Valette, a 20-year-old actress whose previous work has been almost exclusively for French TV. She is a luminous presence, reminiscent of the young Meg Tilly, lovingly photographed by Brunet and well worth the price of admission.

La Petite Jerusalem opens on Friday, January 27 at the Quad Cinemas (34 West 13th St.). For information phone 212-225-8800 or go to