Historical epic suffers from identity crisis
Making a film about a monumental event in contemporary history can be a tricky business. You have to sort through myriad facts and figure out which ones will bend to help you tell your story. You need to find a legitimate narrative thread that manages to be believable. And you have to create authentic, compelling characters viewers will care about.
Some films do this well ("Hotel Rwanda"). Some films don't, and "O Jerusalem" is one of the latter. Alas, it aspires to be an epic drama but suffers from an acute identity crisis: It can't decide if it wants to be history, drama, or a cry for peace in the Mideast. Based on the popular 1971 book by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre, the film re-creates the events surrounding the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, centering on two young Americans, one Jewish (played by J.J. Feild) and the other Arab (Saïd Taghmaoui).
The two start out as buddies in the United States and end up as enemies in Palestine, and the key events of the period - the partition of Palestine and subsequent siege of Jerusalem - swirl around them and their respective compatriots, who evidently are meant to stand in for all Jews and Arabs of that period. With a setup like this it would be simple to succumb to easy stereotypes, and rest assured this film does, complete with an Arab hero who resembles Omar Sharif, a Golda Meir caricature (Tovah Feldshuh) who comes off as an eye-squinting, mouth-pursing chain-smoker; and a bland David Ben-Gurion (Ian Holm), more memorable here for his wild hair than his instrumental role in founding Israel.
Clearly, this is not an easy story to tell, what with multiple languages to represent and the challenges of filming in the Holy City. With the first problem, the filmmakers took the easy way out (both Arabs and Jews speak in English, albeit with accents); and with the second, they took a pass and filmed in Rhodes, Greece. (Nice cinematography, though.) Director Elie Chouraqui says this was necessary because security concerns made it impossible to shoot in Jerusalem, but both these decisions contribute to a film that's not always very believable.
There are other contributing factors, too, chief among them the fact that this film has no discernible point of view other than, "everyone is right and started out with love in their hearts." In an introduction to a new edition of the book, author Lapierre describes it as "the first major book that attempted to portray the viewpoints of all parties involved, whether they be Jews, Arabs, British or Americans."
The film version attempts the same feat, though not very successfully, bumping along from event to event and minimizing any shades of gray or character development which might tempt the viewer to actually take sides. The tactic backfires, since it's hard to become invested in any of the characters, Jew or Arab. (In one scene, an Israeli fighter collapses in despair after receiving the solemn news that Yael died. No one with whom I watched the film could recall who Yael was.)
At the end of the film, the earnest voice of a narrator breaks in, in an effort to link the events of 1948 with the Mideast mess we have today. With the subtlety of a tank rolling over a rampart, he catches us up on events of the last 60 years: "Wars followed wars, creating a cycle of violence, mistrust and hatred." Then he intones: "In spite of all this suffering, one must hope that this seed of peace will grow."
Amen. And that better storytellers will prevail.
Linda Matchan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.