La Petite Jerusalem

Religion plays a large part in the lives of many people. Writer/director Karin Albou explores the intersection between religion, in this case Orthodox Judaism, and the modern world, through the lives of two sisters in La Petite Jerusalem. The two sisters, Laura (Fanny Valette, The Son of Francais) and Mathilde (Elsa Zylberstein, Modigliani, Monsieur N.) think on opposite ends of the spectrum. They are young women undergoing important times in their lives, reaching the point where their beliefs are tested. It feels like a deeply personal film, yet is still a bit light on substance. Part of this is because while there are points in the plot that are important, most of the story is secondary.

Laura turns away from her religion. She immerses herself in philosophy, particularly Kant, and becomes emotionally distant from other people. Her parents disagree vehemently with her choices, but still tolerate her behavior. They want her to find somebody to marry, but she could care less. Mathilde is nearly a model of what a good Orthodox wife should be. She strictly follows all the laws of her religion, and encourages Laura to do the same. Her world falls apart when she discovers that her husband cheated on her. She does what most people would not expect - she stays with him. Like the recent film Gilles' Wife, Mathilde's utter devotion to her husband seems to go beyond all reason. Her first reaction is that something is wrong with her.

Mathilde begins a journey that will question her own beliefs. She is comfortable with her interpretation of Orthodox Judaism. Any new idea seems wrong or blasphemous. She goes to a counselor who encourages her to explore sexuality with her husband, something she finds embarrassing and a bit wrong. For her part, Laura believes that intimacy can be equivalent to a loss of freedom. This all changes when she meets Djamel (Hedi Tillette de Clermont-Tonnerre), a coworker. He is clearly infatuated with her, and this newfound attention forces her to reexamine her own beliefs on love and sex.

La Petite Jerusalem is the name of a low-income suburb of Paris, home to many Jewish immigrants. This allows Albou to do a few more things with her story. She can now have the family live together in cramped quarters, only because they cannot afford better. This heightens any tension between them, since there really is nowhere else to go. The setting insulates the family, especially from people of other races or religions, allowing for more awkward moments between Laura and Djamel. Both Valette and Zylberstein are good actors and do a good job here, but even with all the weighty material, the movie still feels a bit on the light side.

Mongoose Rates It: Not Bad.
1 hour, 36 minutes, French, Hebrew, and a teensy bit of Arabic with English subtitles, Not Rated but contains minor nudity, sensuality, and language, probably an R.

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