A Jewish Romeo meets his Arab Juliet in “A House Divided,” a cross-cultural love story that cloaks Shakespeare’s tragedy in the present-day turmoil of the Middle East. Incongruous combo of broad romantic comedy and ripped-from-the-headlines violence feels like a misguided attempt to make topicality palatable for mainstream audiences. Predominantly English dialogue, delivered by an appealing cast that includes Tovah Feldshuh and F. Murray Abraham, is clearly pitched toward Westerners, making pic of limited commercial interest to the territories it’s ostensibly concerned with.
A lapsed Jew who lives in Boston, Romi Meir (good-looking Eion Bailey) returns home to Jerusalem after hearing of his father’s death in a terrorist bombing. After reuniting with his sweet but tough-willed mother (Feldshuh), he quickly gets talked into participating in an Israeli operation to enter Ramallah and infiltrate the Palestinian forces behind the attack.
Romi’s knowledge of Arabic makes him ideal for the job. In fact, he speaks more Arabic in the film than the main Palestinian characters, who for some reason prefer to communicate in heavily accented English. These include fiery, beautiful young doctor Joleh Khalid (Linda Hardy) and her blind grandfather (Abraham), who bemoans the fact that she’s still single. Not for long, of course — that much is clear from the way-too-cute scene in which Joleh removes a bullet from Romi’s bared posterior, sans anesthetic.
That moment more or less sums up writer-director Mitch Davis’ method, which is to alternate between gritty eruptions of violence (shot on handheld vidcams for that self-consciously authentic look) and the quickly developing relationship between Romi and Joleh, despite their culture clash. Wild tonal shifts aside, the blend of tough realism and canned cuteness feels fatuous at best and irresponsible at worst. Never mind the house; this is a film divided.
Bailey and Hardy give likeable performances in standard roles, providing more chemistry and involvement than this increasingly “Romeo and Juliet”-esque tale of doomed love deserves. Though he’s stuck playing the elderly comic relief, Abraham gets the film’s best scene, in which he doggedly crosses over into enemy territory to water his plants, refusing to compromise his daily routine by caving into fear.
Dialogue is heavy on exposition, as the characters earnestly argue about the Israeli-Palestinian divide in terms not even the most clueless Western moviegoer could fail to understand.
Davis’ previous film, “The Other Side of Heaven,” explored the life of a Mormon missionary. Religious (specifically biblical) elements are also in evidence here, as Joleh at one point movingly tells Romi the story of Jesus walking on water. Less successfully, a bombing that claims the life of an innocent Palestinian boy is heavy-handedly juxtaposed with the story of Abraham and Isaac.
Lensed entirely in Israel, pic showcases its locations to often stunning effect.