I know school plays. I acted in a few. I am well familiar with the cheesy sets, pretentious performances, and the generally self-aware, inflated, heavy-handed delivery of the source material.
The source material here is Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre’s novel, and the unfortunate cinematic rendering comes courtesy of Elie Chouraqui. Though the title for the film had been set in place, its melodramatic nature fits. O if it were only less preoccupied with pleasing everyone! O if the bizarre coincidences only added up! O if the inter-character relationships were at all believable!
Our story begins in 1946 New York and filmed on location clearly elsewhere. Normally, I wouldn’t notice or care, but the non-New Yorkness of the scene was glaring (narrow alleys and cobblestone!). At the outset, the film’s credibility is shaken. Within minutes we meet out two leads. Jewish Bobby Goldman (played by J.J. Field, a poor man’s Jude Law, but without the acting ability) runs through the streets to find a radio so he can listen to the news of the Israeli bombing of British headquarters at the King David Hotel. By pure chance he runs into the car driven by Said Chahine, a Palestinian. Naturally, both are good hearted idealists, the Jew takes the Arab into his fold, and they form an eternal bond.
From that implausible relationship, both in birth and form, the entire movie stems. The bond of these two men is tested through the trials of religion, culture, and war. Is it possible for two men on opposite sides, introduced accidentally, to encounter each other so many times in a struggle that involves thousands? Is it possible for each to rise so drastically in their respective ranks, and mutually exclusive of each other? Of course not. But O Jerusalem is not concerned with what is possible or probable or even relatable. The film deals only with large, ambiguous issues and presents them in grand, overly emotional strokes. It fails to “pick a side” from which to narrate and though such neutrality can sometimes assist in telling a story that has no recognizable heroes or villains, in O Jerusalem, the choice just feels cowardly and safe. When passions are raised to such heights and so much blood is spilled over differentiating points of view, it is disrespectful to each side to simplify the conflict and boil it down to we are all different but also very much the same.
Even though there is plenty of truth to such a sentiment, it doesn’t make for a compelling film about Israel. Either the young Jewish nation has a right to exist, or the Arabs who lived there beforehand have a legitimate claim to drive the Jews out.
It is an oft reiterated argument in the film. A Jew says, “Jerusalem was our home for two thousand years and then we were exiled.” To which an Arab replies, “Yes, but it has been our home for the past two thousand years.” Guess what? You’re both right…but that is not a solution, or even a position.
One particularly engaging scene takes place on the night the U.N. voted to grant Israel statehood. Arabs and Jews gather around the radio, each in their villages. The Jewish eyes light up with each vote in their favor, and the Arab eyes redden and well up with bitter tears. Are we to be sympathetic or elated, or both. O Jerusalem says be both, and that is untenable.
As a history lesson, the film portrays many significant events that lead to the creation of the Jewish state, and therefore it can be a valuable learning tool. But just as sometimes a movie can make gaining an education enjoyable and painless, other times it can be circuitous. I felt as though I could have gathered the same information about Israel’s beginnings from a pamphlet, and saved myself the film’s forthright baggage (though one cannot duplicate the movie having been filmed in Israel and our realizing events in their actual place of occurrence.)
O Jerusalem may believe itself to be engendering a message of peace and understanding between Jews and Arabs in the Holy Land, but a dutiful message combined with segmented chronological scenes does not a powerful film make. Audiences of feature films require characters to identify with and themes to hold onto. Audiences of school plays are merely content to be missing class.