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Mendy, an Orthodox bubble boy, is pitted against the harsh and irrational realities of the first intifada in The Holy Land. We meet our hero as he jerks off on the sly before Shabbat dinner. Mendy (Oren Rehany) is almost comically ugly, but despite his awkwardness, we warm to him quickly as he struggles to add some rock and roll to his life.
Writer/director Eitan Gorlin based the film on many of his own experiences as a lapsed orthodox Jew in Israel. Against the odds, he has succeeded in injecting humor and charm into this coming of age story, while nonetheless endowing it with bite and a deep pessimism.
Mendy’s rabbi, contrary to his intentions, points Mendy in the direction of a brothel that changes his life. The rabbi quotes an obscure Talmudic passage that authorizes restless young Hasidim to “get it out of their systems.” But, true to cliché, Mendy falls in love with Sasha (Tchelet Semel), the beautiful prostitute he meets at the Love Boat, his bordello of choice, and never comes back.
Mendy tells his parents he has moved to the Holy City to be closer to God and starts working for Mike at Mike’s Place, the Jerusalem version of the Star Wars Cantina bar. Here Arabs and Jews co-mingle, yarmulke-wearing rabbi-types perform Bob Dylan songs, and, most importantly, Mendy can see lots of Sasha. Mendy has entered a world of extreme characters who use him, come to love him and ultimately betray him.
Mike uses Mendy’s Orthodox looks to smuggle weed past security check points—Hasidim attract little suspicion. Mendy also befriends “The Exterminator,” an M16-wielding Jewish settler, and Razi, an Arab who negotiates illicit deals between Jewish settlers and Palestinian landowners in the West Bank.
At first, Mendy dissmisses his new friends as nothing but comic relief, caricatures who mean no harm. But slowly he begins to see that they take their extremist ideologies seriously. Amidst these loony people, Mendy finally does feel closer to God—though he now wears cool T-shirts and has cut off his side curls, Mendy’s prayers have acquired real meaning, and he utters them fervently when he thinks no one is looking.
Mendy plans to escape to Florida with Sasha once they marry, using his U.S. passport—his mother is American—and her money. But the characters Mendy has met get in the way. They make Mendy doubt Sasha’s love for him, and, in his disillusionment, he tries to return to his family and the safe Hasidic world he left behind. In this world of ideologies gone wild, however, going home is not an option. Mendy’s adventures in the real world end with a bomb he unwittingly helped smuggle across a checkpoint.
The real plot twist in this story, however, is that the author of this tolerant and subtle film, Gorlin himself, was once a member of the Israel far-right. Though the film may deliver a difficult message, that fact at least is more uplifting than a Hollywood ending.
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