The traffic in sex slaves from Eastern Europe is not pretty, so it makes perfect sense that Amos Gitai should choose to make his drama on the subject, “Promised Land,” depressing, brutal and ugly looking. Problem is, resulting film is also incoherent, unedifying and slightly salacious, almost seeming to revel in the sadism inflicted on its femme characters. Nevertheless, subject matter, plus inclusion of name thesps could spell improved sales prospects abroad for this latest effort from the prolific but patchily distributed Israeli helmer.
In typical Gitai-style, opening sequence plunges right into the action, leaving aud to pick through the babble of overlapping voices as to why these Russian-speaking women are traveling through the Sinai desert accompanied by Bedouin nomads. It seems most of them expect they will be working as prostitutes out of nice hotels in Egypt, affording time off to visit the pyramids and the like.
How wrong they are. First, one of their number is raped. Then they are auctioned off by a Frenchwoman named Anne (Anne Parillaud) who has the Bedouins pull up their skirts and expose their breasts to demonstrate the quality of her goods to prospective customers. Film follows a remaining gaggle of women as they travel through Ramallah, into Israel to a Red Sea-side nightclub where they are hosed down in concentration camp fashion.
German acting legend Hanna Schygulla is wheeled on as the brothel-keeper Hanna, decked out in a near-parody of a movie madam with a cigarette holder and headscarf. When a distraught Estonian girl named Diana (Ukrainian actress Diana Despechni) won’t stop crying, Hanna comforts her with a clunky, improvised-sounding monologue that’s not without resonance thanks to Schygulla’s charisma.
Later, Diana begs for help from an Englishwoman named Rose (Rosamund Pike) who seems to be just hanging around the brothel at first and then later appears to have joined the women’s ranks as sex slave. In a director’s statement, Gitai suggests Rose can be read as an avatar of the at-first voyeuristic, then later sympathizing aud, but unfortunately her supposedly symbolic function reads onscreen more as the product of botched editing.
The grinding first hour at least has a gritty feel, evidence of Gitai’s long engagement with documentary. But the last half simply implodes, cramming together flashback until a car bomb at another brothel offers a deus ex machina conclusion.
Pic suffers in comparison with treatment of similar material in Lukas Moodysson’s “Lilya 4-Ever,” in which a series of rapes of the main heroine are seen entirely from the victim’s point of view, making experience both more harrowing and less exploitative of its actress. Even Philippe Grandrieux’s “A New Life,” for all its obliqueness and borderline pretension, packs a much stronger sense of menace and imminent violence.
Casting directors should take a look at Despechni, who keeps the film afloat during lulls. Transfer of some digitally shot sequences to 35mm print are spotty, especially in the low-lit interiors, but lensing of night sequences are impressively rich and dense in texture.