Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Oct 29, 2012 6:15 pm 
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Drug dealer to the Promised Land

Alyah, Elie Wajeman's directorial debut, quietly announces its sense of style with dp David Chizallet's cool opening images of desolate street scenes in the northern part of Paris. Then the movie grabs you and holds you with close up focus on the macho, hunky but buttoned up protagonist, Alex Raphaelson (Pio Marmaï of Delicacy and Living on Love Alone), a petty drug dealer in Paris driven nuts by his flaky brother Isaac (the director Cédric Kahn), who's always borrowing money he won't return. When Alex learns his energetic cousin Nathan (David Geselson) is starting a club-restaurant in Israel he thinks can't fail, he makes working with Nathan his goal and begins applying for "alyah," the return to the holy lands sponsored by Isreal for qualified Jews. He studies Hebrew with his ex-girlfriend Esther (Sarah Lepicard) and finds proof of his "Jewishness." His motive in alyah isn't religious, or even ethnic. It's the desire for a fresh start. Alyah's originality arises from its ironies: the near-do-well with ambition, the Jew involved in petty crime, the religious journey that isn't one, the family man who wants to escape from it all. Alyah is a movie that leaves you feeling a little flat at the end, but the way there is stylish and has a sense of intimacy enlivened by mystery.

There's a Hollywood film feel in a good way with with the opening sequence of contrasting scenes. First a drug deal and a bad encounter with the maddening but soulful Isaac. Then the story opens up when Alex goes to the apartment of his aunt (Brigitte Jaques Wajeman), where a Shabbat dinner is being conducted, showing a family of French practicing Jews -- and able handling by Wajeman of an atmospheric scene full of new characters. To one side is Alex's withdrawn widower father (Jean-Marie Winling), whose manner reveals much. Obviously the brothers haven't had love or a positive role model, and Alex has had to take over responsibility for the weak Isaac. This sits oddly with the illegal way he supports himself. But then it doesn't: his father lacks the moral credibility to object.

The movie unfolds in counterpoint. The many details of Alex's pursuit of alya constantly alternate with the main, though not unusual, paradox. To get out of drug dealing he raises money by more drug dealing, in fact with a sense or urgency and at a higher level than usual, necessitating an upgrade from hash to coke. Meanwhile there's a third theme because at the Shabbat dinner Alex has met a goyish visitor, Jeanne (Adèle Haenel), a beautiful student, and they fall for each other, despite a slight remaining pull from his ex-girlfriend Esther (Sarah Lepicard), a Hebrew teacher whom he now takes language lessons from to prepare for life in Isreal. He follows the lessons half-heartedly, but he also doesn't buy a return ticket to France.

All this is carried along by Marmaï's strong, rough presence, which is compelling but studiously not ingratiating. He does not play to anyone, and that includes the viewer, and this adds to his interest -- up to a point. It might help to show more cracks in the armor, but we have to settle for Alex's impatience with Isaac and his frustrated rage when there's a major hitch in his effort to accumulate funds. Like any scheme of this kind, there is the doubt: wherever you go, there you are, and Alex won't escape his private demons by immigrating to Israel. But the few final scenes set there have a realism that makes the project at least seem concrete. Working on construction of the restaurant, he can't understand a word of his supervisor's Hebrew, but he knows enough to say "I don't understand." The final scenes show light and air. Most of what has led up to this has been moody and dark. The acting is fine throughout and the directing is sure.

Maybe the most memorable scene is Alex's farewell to Jeanne in a Paris café when she draws a diagram of their relationship on a paper placemat, to which he adds his own touches. It's a vivid little display of the analytical intelligence about matters of the heart that French girls have.

Alyah , 90 mins., debuted at Cannes in May 2012 during Directors' Fortnight. It opened in Paris September 19 and was well received by critics (Allociné press rating: 3.7). Screened for this review as a part of the San Francisco Film Society's French Cinema Now series in October 2012. US release begins June 13, 2013. (It's also listed with the spelling Aliyah.)

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