There’s a great movie inside “O Jerusalem” that wants freedom and independence, but is suppressed by an earnestness that’s practically colonial. A primer on the birth of Israel as told through an Arab-Jewish friendship, this Elie Chouraqui-helmed meller features some first-rate cinematography and solid acting, but absolutely no sense of emotional boundaries. Interest in the subject matter should generate some B.O., but the movie will likely be more of a desert bloom on DVD.
Based on Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre’s 1972 novel, the story begins in ’40s New York, amid a rush of energy, period detail and a great sense of youth. Two New York Jews, Bobby (J.J. Feild,) and Jacob (Mel Raido), become friends with Arab-Muslim Said (Said Taghmaoui) and try to remain so while the Holy Land is being partitioned, Jews and Arabs are killing each other and the war rages for Israeli independence.
Battle scenes are only slightly less cheesy than Ian Holm, in what seems to be fright wig, filling in the historical blanks as David Ben Gurion, and Tovah Feldshuh, waxing imperious as Golda Meir.
Reflecting the infant nation itself, “O Jerusalem” is powered by a kind of naivete on the part of its characters (and filmmakers) that makes it resemble “Romeo & Juliet” (albeit with a same-sex Romeo and Juliet, who are Jewish and Arab instead of Montague and Capulet) and a heart-on-its-sleeve approach to wartime friendship and world politics.
There’s also more than a slight tendency to tell auds a bit too much about how they should feel, which is obvious enough. Bobby and Said kill each other’s people but never each other; the passion that rages to this day and prevents Middle Easterners from reaching an accord never quite demolishes their bond, even as the war collapses communities, cities and people. If only it were so: Many a friendship has been ended over the Middle East, and “O Jerusalem,” with its starry-eyed if battle-scarred optimism, can’t quite achieve credibility.
Production values are top-notch.