HOLLYWOOD — Forget Otto Preminger’s “Exodus” — Israel has rarely, if ever, been depicted onscreen as iconoclastically as in “The Holy Land,” which premiered at the recent L.A. Film Festival.
Eitan Gorlin’s unorthodox feature about the Jewish state is a cross between “Portnoy’s Complaint” and “Salvador.” Like Philip Roth’s controversial novel about American Jewry, Eitan’s nonkosher indie shatters stereotypes about Israelis and an unholy land.
Gorlin’s directorial debut opens as rabbinical student Mendy (Oren Rehany) masturbates in the bathroom while his Orthodox rabbi father prepares for a shabbas dinner ceremony.
Later, a yeshiva teacher noticing the young man’s distraction advises Mendy to “get it out of his system” via prostitutes. At a Tel Aviv brothel, Mendy becomes obsessed with a Russian emigre. Lying to his parents, Mendy moves to Jerusalem to pursue Sacha the hooker.
But wait, there’s more: At Mike’s Place — a contemporary Rick’s Cafe in this post-modern “Casablanca” — Mendy falls in with a decidedly unrabbinical crew: Yank expat Mike, a war photojournalist-turned-barman; the Exterminator, a messianistic, M-16-wielding American settler; and Razi, an Arab wheeler-dealer.
Gorlin says the characters are based on people he knew when he lived in Jerusalem.
“It’s an interesting mix (and) a real country, (with) lots of conflict and crime,” says Gorlin, who adds he was “blown away” by the diversity.
Regarding the demi-monde in the holy land, the writer-director says prostitution is pretty much legal. Russian gangsters “fly girls into Cairo and smuggle (them) through the Sinai desert over camels with Bedouins,” he claims.
“I’ve been to Bangkok, and I’ve never seen a red light district like Tel Aviv’s.”The thirtyish Gorlin was born in America to parents he calls “very Zionistic.” In the 1990s, he served in the Israeli army and, like Mendy, studied for the rabbinate and tended bar during a period of bus bombings in Israel.
Gorlin was not involved in the Israeli film scene, instead taking cinema at the U. of Pennsylvania and the New School in Gotham, helming a 16mm short and writing.
Gorlin crewed low-budget pics, produced the feature-length “Sometime in August,” and says a journalist friend at the real Mike’s Place got the ball rolling in financing the modestly budgeted “Holy Land.”
When asked what reaction Jewish opinion makers may have to what Gorlin calls “a very unconventional screen image of Israel,” the director responds that artists exist to debunk myths.
“Do I think I’ll become the Salmon Rushdie of the Jews?” Gorlin posits. “I don’t care. Most American Jews have this (wrong) perception of the holy land. A lot of this movie was the irony, or to turn that (misperception) upside down.”