In “Little Jerusalem,” a young Orthodox Jewish woman puts her faith in the Torah and the classic works of European philosophy until neither suffices in the face of sexual desire. Keenly thesped pic juggles big issues, frank contextual nudity, the matter-of-fact specter of anti-Semitism in contempo France, and more. Scripter-helmer Karin Albou’s assured feature debut, which explores compound emotional disarray, will be a conversation starter for fests in search of new talent and a given for Jewish fests.
Juxtaposing the most ancient of rituals with absolutely modern concerns, pic sharply portrays a low-income suburb outside Paris that, for most viewers, will be a visit to another planet.
Eighteen-year-old Laura (Fanny Valette) lives with her family in an impersonal concrete housing block in a neighborhood of Sarcelles nicknamed Little Jerusalem because of its substantial Jewish and Jewish immigrant population. Laura’s widowed mother (Sonia Tahar) is a kindly but superstitious matriarch who was born and raised in Tunisia. Also living in the modest apartment are Laura’s sister Mathilde (Elsa Zylberstein), her husband Ariel (Bruno Todeschini) and their four young children.
While Laura wears her long dark hair uncovered, Mathilde covers hers with an opaque snood at home and a wig in the outside world. Mathilde follows religious law to the letter; Laura is respectful of her heritage but near fanatical in her study of philosophy, sometimes staying up all night to read Kant.
When she’s not studying or attending the university classes in central Paris, Laura has a job on the cleaning crew at the school where Mathilde teaches Hebrew to children. Djamel (Hedi Tillette de Clermont Tonnerre), an exiled Algerian Muslim, works the same shift.
Laura’s reading and reflection have led her to conclude that romantic love is a harmful illusion that can only lead to a loss of personal freedom. But the way Djamel looks at her throws her intellectual and spiritual beliefs for a loop.
Centered on people of limited means, pic intelligently explores the ways in which the demands of a tightly knit religious community can be stifling or liberating depending on one’s own temperament. Highlights include scenes at the ritual baths where an unnamed woman wonderfully played by Aurore Clement reminds sexually reserved Mathilde that God wants women to have a blast in the bedroom, assuring her that Jewish law is in favor of sexual pleasure — within the confines of marriage.
In what is arguably her best performance since “Van Gogh,” Zylberstein brings Mathilde to life with grace and fervor. As the smart and beautiful but tortured Laura, Valette winningly conveys a serious teen’s search for answers.