A fed-up Jewish drug dealer in Paris decides to take the necessary steps to start over in the Promised Land in “Aliyah,” the intimate and dexterous debut feature of France-based filmmaker Elie Wajeman. Rather than a direct religious motive, the protag uses his proposed move abroad to find out how those who will stay behind really feel about him — and to see whether he can finally take charge of his life. Francophone arthouses and Jewish fests are natural habitats, though Wajeman’s talents deserve wider notice.
Despite being a dealer, Alex (Pio Marmai, “Delicacy”) seems to lead a more stable life than his clingy brother, Isaac (helmer Cedric Kahn), who keeps begging his younger sibling for money he promises he’ll pay back soon. Since Wajeman stays close to Alex’s p.o.v. throughout — starting from the first scene, a you-are-there, handheld-shot exchange between Alex and a client — it’s never clear what Isaac needs the cash for, and the intensely private Alex knows better than to ask any questions.
Pic’s view widens after Alex visits an aunt (Brigitte Jaques Wajeman), who’s hosting a family Shabbat dinner, and his apathetic widower father (Jean-Marie Winling). It becomes clear that the siblings have suffered from a lack of love and good examples in their lives, and Isaac has forced Alex to take on a fatherly role.
The laid-back Shabbat dinner sequence provides evidence of Wajeman’s filmmaking confidence, introducing a host of new characters with ease and laying foundations for future events. Among the dinner guests are the protag’s ex-g.f., Esther (Sarah Le Picard), a Hebrew teacher with whom he’s still on good terms; a potential new conquest, beautiful goy Jeanne (Adele Haenel); and cousin Nathan (David Geselson), whose plans to open a restaurant in Tel Aviv suggest an escape hatch for Alex, who’s been planning to quit his trade and start anew.
“Aliyah” literally refers to the Zionist concept of ascending to the Land of Israel, but while the film doesn’t skimp on the countless practicalities that precede a Jew’s arrival in the Promised Land, it also makes clear the idea is motivated not by religion, but rather by Alex’s need to get away from his current lifestyle (though ironically, he starts selling hard drugs to finance the move), and to see if anyone loves him enough to make him stay. This particular motivation brings about one of the film’s most resonant and cleverly cinematic scenes, an encounter between Alex and Jeanne in a bar, where they map out their feelings on a paper placemat.
Marmai offers a closed-up perf that Wajeman tries to penetrate with his agile camera, closing in on the actor’s face in the many moments when his thoughts are unspoken but clearly readable. Kahn also impresses as the needy Isaac, and the unhealthy rapport between the brothers is absolutely convincing. Rest of the cast is solid.
Unassuming closing scenes in Israel highlight the country’s multicultural background, suggesting that Alexes from all over the world have made the journey to start anew there.