For those who are unfamiliar with Jewish or Israeli humour, we are an irreverent bunch; so a film about someone raising pigs in Nazareth, Jerusalem who befriends an Orthodox rabbi who is protesting his actions is too good to resist. But Holy Lands is far more than that. A tapestry of love, loss, and the bizarre ways humans deal with the hard stuff life throws at us. Based on Amanda Sthers novel of the same name, Holy Lands is a series of interwoven stories about family, love, life, and death.
The film follows Harry Rosenmerck, an Ashkenazi Jewish man, as he abandons his life and family in New York to raise pigs in Jerusalem. Yes, it is legal. Meanwhile, his ex-wife is diagnosed with late-stage breast cancer, something has a severe impact on their children Anabelle (Efrat Dor) and Daniel (Jonathan Rhys Myers). At its core, Holy Lands is a family drama rooted in the Jewish experience. The film opens with ethereal shots of dancers with a prominent voice over of a letter from a son to a father, something that will become a defining aspect of the film. From the outset there is a French stylistic sensibility. There is more flair and more artistry in the colours and shot choices than in similar films of the genre. The aim is not so much to establish the film, but more to impress a mood upon the audience.
This decadent opening is contrasted by a sequence of Harry reading the letter in the dusty, dry desert of his farm. Followed by a rather comic sequence where a rabbi, several protests, and religious figures from multiple faiths ride, like the templars, to Harry’s farm to object to his practices. The standout performance of this film is Tom Hollander as the orthodox rabbi Moshe. Although Hollander was raised Catholic, there could not have been anyone better to play the particular, intelligent, but deeply warmhearted rabbi. The overriding relationship of the film, that of Harry and Moshe, is a heart-warming, humorous story of stubborn men overcoming their prejudices to find a deep, life changing friendship. This is beautifully illustrated by the trip the two men take to the Dead Sea, and their conflict and friendship highlights the conflicts and paradoxes within Israel. Anyone who has visited the country will know that Tel Aviv is a modern, thriving city, whilst Jerusalem is a mix of modernity and tradition. Israel has always been a country with one foot in the future, and one in tradition. If that was the film, as suggested in the trailer, that would be more than enough.
Yet Holy Lands is not only Harry’s story, but his wife Monica’s as well. Her world is the slate greys and dark mahoganies of New York apartments. Monica and Harry inhabit worlds that could not be more different from one another. Hers is the story we were totally unprepared for. This is where Holy Lands takes a deeper, far more intimate turn. Older parents developing cancer has become more and more common in recent years, so Sther’s choice to make it a focal point of the film is both timely and important. Life doesn’t just stop once one has a career, marriage, and children. We grow up, then we grow old. The serious moments counter-balance the irony of the main arc, reminding us that this man has left behind a family who needs him.
Furthermore, the impact Monica’s diagnosis has on the family is thoroughly explored with sensitivity and realism. Anabelle, their youngest who hasn’t yet left her adolescence behind despite being well into her twenties, is present and supportive. Yet her son David, a gay playwright, cannot bear to watch his mother waste away and die. His reaction is not treated well by other characters, but Sthers acknowledges that sometimes our own pain for those around us is overwhelming.
David keeps writing to his father throughout the film, but as Anabelle discovers, he does not read the letters because he finds it incredibly difficult to accept his son’s homosexuality. Criticisms have been made of Holy Lands because, at one point, Harry says he holds onto an imaginary version of his son who does not love men. Yet this is still a reality for some; we do not yet live in a society where LGBTQIA+ people are free from judgement by their loved ones. It is familial love with all its complications, oxymorons, and impossibilities. We love our parents and siblings, no matter how they make us feel. We are the cause of their joy. And they are the cause of our pain. David and Harry’s problems highlight that we can’t always be what and who our parents what us to be, but that is just life.
Although marketed as a comedy, Holy Lands really is a very sad, if somewhat melodramatic, family drama. It is not about one of these stories, but about how they all impact each other, such as whether Harry’s choice to up and leave was ultimately damaging to his family, or how Monica chose to right a past wrong of her love life. How an accidental encounter results in Anabelle finding purpose and bringing life into her shattered family. Holy Lands is an ode to the struggles and surprises life brings us. It is stylistically quite French, but the script and subject matter are very Jewish. It may not be for everyone, but Holy Lands is a beautiful, honest, and moving portrait of one Jewish family.
Holy Lands is out on Digital on June 21st
by Mia Garfield
Mia Garfield has just finished a degree in Film at Falmouth University. She has just finished her first short ‘Sonder’, keep an eye out for it at festivals in the UK. A big lover of Fantasy, Sci-Fi, and Mythology, her taste is varied. Her favourite films include Howl’s Moving Castle, Memoirs of A Geisha, How to Train Your Dragon, and Big Hero 6. You can find her @miajulianna2864