Dir/scr: Karin Albou. Fr.2005. 96mins.
Karin Albou's LaPetite Jerusalem purports to deal with the femininity of its two youngParisian sister protagonists, Laura (Valette) and Mathilde (Zylberstein), eachattempting to make peace between her respective beliefs and desires.
But in truth this debutfeature amounts to little more than another impossible romance where true loveis defeated by family and ethnic circumstances.
More conventional than theusually adventurous Critics' Week fare, La Petite Jerusalem should havean easier time than most reaching a commercial release on arthouse circuits,but it is doubtful whether it has the stamina to stay there for very long.
Eighteen-year-old Laurashares a small, crowded flat in Sarcelles, a Parisian suburb mostly populatedby emigrants, with her widowed mother (Sonia Tahar), her married sisterMathilde, her husband Ariel (Bruno Todeschini) and their four small children.
Unlike the rest of thefamily - who are orthodox and strictly adhere to Jewish rules and traditions -Laura studies philosophy and tries to forge for herself everyday Kantiandisciplines and notions.
Her sister, on the otherhand, is willing to rely on God and his laws for answers to everything thatbothers her and her children, while trying to persuade Laura to put trust inthe Holy Torah as well.
But both soon find theirpersonal determination weakening. Laura's world of pure reason is shattered byher passion for a young Arab who works with her as a school janitor in theevenings, while Mathilde's faith is tested by her husband's infidelity.
Their mother wants tobelieve she can put things right with the help of old spells she learned backhome in Tunis - but a new wave of anti-semitism in Sarcelles adds an urgentdimension to the family's circumstances.
Evidently familiar, if notoverly respectful of Jewish traditions, Albou spreads herself too thinly overtoo large a territory, mentioning but never really probing issues like secularphilosophy versus religious faith, women's status in an orthodox society,relations between minorities in France and the rites of passage of a younggirl's first sexual encounter.
The background is also chargedwith a multitude of religious rituals, which will mean little to non-Jewishaudiences, that are distributed throughout like pieces of exotic decor to fillup empty spaces.
Anyone familiar with Jewishcustoms, however, will wonder at details like an observant Jewish girl sharinga dressing room with men or religious women entering the traditionalpurification bath (mikve) in the nude, when they normally would wear a shift.
What remains for those whocan live with such indiscretions is a pleasant, modest romantic picture dealingwith Laura's coming-of-age affair and Mathilde's efforts to provide thenecessary excitement for her husband while strictly respecting every letter ofthe law.
Neither issue isparticularly original, but Valette's and Zylberstein's sincere performancescarry them through, with colourful help from Tahar as their mother.
Nicolas de Boiscuille
Hedi Tillette de Clermont Tonnerre