'Barfly' meets 'Casablanca' in Mideast film

Director Eitan Gorlin is fond of the Jewish saying that everything in Judaism can be understood on 70 levels. And it shows in his debut film, "The Holy Land," which opens in Boston Friday.

" 'The Holy Land' is, on the outside, a simple coming-of-age story, but one that comes loaded with a range of sociological, theological, and political problems expressed through the eyes of Mendy, an Orthodox rabbinical student who falls in love with a Russian immigrant prostitute.

The pair meet at Mike's Place, a bar owned by an American war photographer where Jews, Arabs, gun-happy settlers, and Eastern European immigrants meet against a backdrop of live music and political upheaval. Mike's Place, a real bar where Gorlin worked in 1993, is the classic dive - think "Barfly" meets Sarajevo.

Because Gorlin shot the film at the end of 1999, a relatively peaceful time, he and his crew concentrated on less often explored, internal subjects, such as labor workers and immigrants. The result is an endearing, dark portrait of after-hours Jerusalem and the people who inhabit it - perhaps a more realistic view of this country than normally seen in fiction.

"People kind of project their own beliefs and experiences on a place that they've never been to or have visited for two weeks," Gorlin said in a telephone interview, "but Israel is today the people who live there. ... They [laborers, immigrants, Orthodox Jews, Arabs] are all part of the mosaic of Israel."

From yeshivas to U-Penn

For Gorlin, who comes from an Orthodox American family and attended conservative yeshivas in the US and Israel, another goal of the film was to explore the idea of boundaries - religious ones, philosophical ones, political, and geographical ones.

Like his character, Mendy, Gorlin has done his share of intellectual - as well as geographical - boundary crossing. After completing studies at a Zionist yeshiva, Gorlin attended the University of Pennsylvania, where he discovered the classics - Kafka, Dostoyevsky, and Joyce - studies that inspired him to take on a more secular world view.

"For me, it was so helpful to read these books," says Gorlin. "You feel so alone, and you think, 'How could everyone around me be so wrong about everything they believe in?' ... Then you see the sort of oneness of humanity through the books."

After graduation, Gorlin returned to Israel for a family wedding and decided to stay. He became a citizen and joined the Israeli Defense Force, something every citizen is required to do. "I had long blond hair," Gorlin says, remembering his unsuitability for the IDF. "I bond with people. I don't bond with tribes."

"Jerusalem," in the mid-1990s, Gorlin explains, "was almost a playground for us," but "with the army, I understood the brutality of occupation."

The film, which has garnered a grassroots following, nearly missed sinking into oblivion. Gorlin failed to find a distributor and put the film away until a few days after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, at which time he applied for the Slamdance Film Festival on a whim.

One room, lots of people

The film won the festival's Feature Grand Jury prize in 2002 and was picked up by CAVU films, who marketed the picture through grass-roots methods such as free screenings to Jewish groups.

Mike's Place is still open for business, under different ownership. "It was a really defining experience," Gorlin explains. "Sometimes you'd look around the room and think, 'What are all these people doing in the same room?' And that's how I feel about Israel," he says. "What are all these people doing in the same room?"

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