Low-key but affecting, La Petite Jerusalem examines an Orthodox Jewish family trying to find its place in modern society. Centering on two sisters, one observant, one more skeptical, the script takes an approach that sometimes seems too schematic and simplistic. Two factors keep the film on track: Karin Albou’s sensitive direction, and an ingratiating performance by Fanny Valette.
Valette plays Laura, a philosophy student who is modeling her life on Immanuel Kant. Rejecting her religious heritage is difficult enough, but Laura still lives with her sister Mathilde (Elsa Zylberstein), a devout believer who adheres to Orthodox law. The sisters share a cramped apartment along with Mathilde’s husband Ariel (Bruno Todeschini) and three children. Add a grandmother (Sonia Tahar) who still believes in her native Tunisian folk spells, and it’s easy to understand Laura’s frustrations.
Preoccupied with her own concerns, Laura doesn’t realize that Mathilde’s marriage is in trouble. Mathilde surprisingly defends her sister when she wants to date Djamel (Hedi Tillette de Clermont Tonnerre), an Arab who works with her cleaning an elementary school. But when the local synagogue is firebombed, and Ariel is beaten in an anti-Semitic attack, Laura wonders if she can continue seeing Djamel.
Making her feature directing debut, Albou, who also wrote the screenplay, sympathizes with her characters while still seeing their shortcomings. Mathilde and Ariel start out as stock figures, but grow into complex adults struggling with earthly issues. Even the superstitious grandmother, at first just comic relief, gets the chance to explain herself. The director works well with actors, eliciting performances that feel unforced and authentic. Albou’s restraint gives the film a documentary realism, but prevents it from becoming a truly engaging story. The deliberate pace and meticulous camerawork make it too easy to step back from the action, especially during the script’s weaker stretches. Albou goes into such detail about Mathilde’s and Ariel’s sexual problems that the film threatens to turn into a religious marital aid lecture.
The best reason to watch La Petite Jerusalem is Fanny Valette, who is utterly convincing as a girl struggling between intellect and passion. A bona fide beauty, she brings a commitment and gravity to scenes that don’t always deserve them.
Cast and credits:
Cast: Fanny Valette, Elsa Zylberstein, Bruno Todeschini, Hedi Tillette de Clermont Tonnerre, Sonia Tahar, Michael Cohen, Aurore Clément, François Marthouret, Saida Bekkouche, Salah Teskouk.
Credits: Written and directed by Karin Albou. Produced by Laurent Lavolé, Isabelle Pragier. Director of photography: Laurent Brunet. Production designer: Nicolas de Boisuillé. Edited by Christiane Lack. Music by Cyril Morin. Costume designer: Tania Shebabo Cohen. A Gloria Films presentation of a Gloria Films and Film Par Film production, in association with Canal +, Ile-de-France Region Media, and CNC. In French, Arabic, and Hebrew with English subtitles.