Jerusalem in Imax 3D with a topping of Benedict Cumberbatch — that’s a pretty big dessert of branding. The richly plummy vowels of His Royal Cumberness are mostly window dressing on this magnificently scenic but fatally bland National Geographic docu-history of one of the world’s most beautiful, bloodily contested cities. With one eye surely fixed on the spiritual tourism market, the movie’s focus is firmly on Jerusalem as the “gateway to God” for Islam, Judaism and Christianity. Those looking for a portrait of Jerusalem as the modern, politically polarized city it is today are mostly out of luck.
At 40 minutes long, “Jerusalem,” which is currently playing on giant screens around the United States, feels as though it’s hanging off the edge of some other, bigger project. In venues like the California Science Center, where the film accompanies an exhibit of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the film bowls along nicely through this ancient city’s history above and below ground. No need for the corny swelling strings: The landscape pops off the screen, with terrific aerial shots of nearby Masada, the Dome of the Rock, and other well-known vistas of a city that looks medieval by day and bathed in deceptively tranquil light by night.
Cumberbatch cruises us through the story of the staggering 40 times Jerusalem has been conquered. Those invasions racked up a ton of human and architectural carnage as well as beautiful buildings. The most compelling sequences by far are those in which a local archaeologist guides us through the detritus of an ancient, invisible past beneath her feet, where the the marks of multiple civilizations and barbaric intrusions are being pieced together in an ongoing effort to map the city through time. A computerized reconstruction of the much-destroyed Temple is a special thrill.
Otherwise, “Jerusalem” is a garden-variety travelogue with a generous helping of cheese. Director Daniel Ferguson plucked three dark-eyed young beauties from local schools to represent the modern faces of the three great religions. Their melting-pot backgrounds are interesting, but mostly they’re our highly scripted guides through the usual tourist spots. With them we plod ceremonially through weddings and bar mitzvot, watch muezzins calling the Muslim faithful to prayer, and visit ornate church interiors you can find anywhere online — and, of course, the Western Wall.
“We don’t know much about each other,” says one of the pleasant young women, who in fact seem not to have met at all. A face-to-face encounter might have helped, or at least some sense of East and West Jerusalem as two bustling cities. Instead, at the end the movie crosses their paths virtually at the shuk, in a sentimental but empty gesture that may be as close as this film gets to edging up to the central story of one of the most conflicted cities in the world. Instead, Ferguson’s careful, painfully banal script keeps sidling up to the neverending conflict that splits this lovely city in two, then backing away into conciliatory but meaningless bromides about intercultural understanding. He probably should have stuck with the gorgeous vistas.