LOS ANGELES, July 20 (JTA) — "The Holy Land," says the movie´s writer/director Eitan Gorlin, "shows the underbelly of real life in Jerusalem after the tourists and Orthodox families go to sleep." The film, which has already won remarkable recognition in America for a debut feature by a complete unknown, packs a great deal more into its 96 minutes. On the slender storyline of a young, sheltered yeshiva student who falls in love with an even younger Russian prostitute, "The Holy Land" ranges across the Israeli landscape of the late 1990s, with its fervently Orthodox Jews, religious Zionist settlers, Arab collaborators and terrorists, and Russian and American immigrants. The film´s protagonist is Mendy, studying at a yeshiva in B´nai B´rak, who finds it increasingly hard to keep his thoughts off women and sex. One of his rabbis advises him to "get it out of his system" by visiting a prostitute. Mendy takes off for Jerusalem and at a strip club meets Sasha, a 19-year-old prostitute from Ukraine. The inexperienced Mendy falls hard for the hooker, while vaguely hoping to "save" her, and in turn is introduced by her to Mike´s Place. The seedy pub in eastern Jerusalem is run by Mike, a big, blustery American former war photographer, whose joint is a combination of Rick´s Café in a postmodern "Casablanca" and the cantina in "Star Wars." The pull of Mendy´s religious life grows stronger as his new secular experiences and relationships become more complex and disturbing. The resolution of this internal conflict in the movie´s last minutes adds the ultimate shocker to the iconoclastic film. Since "The Holy Land" represents such a singular, largely autobiographical, vision, Gorlin´s own background serves as a useful program guide. At 34, Gorlin´s life has moved between the religious and worldly poles and has encompassed the bohemian restlessness and searching of the American expatriate writers of the 1920s. He was born in Silver Spring, Md., studied at the Yeshiva of Greater Washington and after graduating at 17, headed for Israel and enrolled at the national religious Yeshiva Sha´alvim. After a stint as a congressional intern in Washington, the wandering spirit struck again. For the next two years he lived in Paris, London, Prague, Cairo, Calcutta, Bangkok, Saigon and Hanoi, doing odd jobs as a waiter, bartender, party promoter and street performer. He interrupted his global tramping for a three-year stay in Israel, during which he served as a gunner in an Israeli army tank unit, and met the real-life Mike, who hired him as a bartender. (Mike´s Place subsequently moved to Tel Aviv, where it was damaged in a bombing by two British-born Arab terrorists in April.) Returning again to the United States, Gorlin wrote three scripts and a novella, titled "Mike´s Place, a Jerusalem Diary," which became the basis of the movie. At the end of 1999, he had raised enough private money — he won´t say how much — to return to Israel and for one solid year he worked 20 hours a day, seven days a week, to cast and shoot "The Holy Land." In the principal roles he cast two sabras, 23-year-old Oren Rehary as Mendy and 19-year-old Tchelet Semel as Sasha, with American actor Saul Stein portraying Mike. Once the film was in the can, nobody wanted to screen it. "We were turned down by every Jewish film festival in the United States and by the Jerusalem Festival in Israel," Gorlin says. Finally, on an impulse, he entered his picture in the 2002 Slamdance Film Festival, which has replaced the now-mainstream Sundance Festival as a venue for avant-garde, independent films. "The Holy Land" not only was one of 14 feature films accepted out of 1,000 applicants, but walked off with the top Grand Jury Prize. Success bred success: Gorlin won the 21st Century Filmmaker Award at the Avignon/New York Film Festival, and later was nominated for the Independent Spirit "Someone to Watch" award. After these successes, an American film distributor, CAVU Pictures, finally showed up, signed Gorlin to a contract. The picture, which has opened in New York, is set to show in Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas, Washington, Denver and a dozen other cities as well. In an extended interview, Gorlin came across as the very antithesis of the Hollywood self-promoter. He has indeed kept such a low profile that, during months of inquiries, his name drew an absolute blank among Israel film mavens in Tel Aviv and Los Angeles. He was finally discovered teaching Hebrew classes at the Reconstructionist congregation Kehillat Israel in Pacific Palisades, Calif. Like Mendy, Gorlin keeps struggling with his religious identity. "We seem to be the chosen people of an angry God. Maybe we´re doing something wrong," he says. "Part of me wants to reject God, but I can´t do it."
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Tom Tugend is JTA's Los Angeles correspondent. A veteran journalist, he also writes for the Jerusalem Post, the Los Angeles Jewish Journal and the London Jewish Chronicle.