For many Jews, making aliyah is a response to a commandment, an edict from the Creator. And for some, it’s an escape from a life that has spiraled out of control. That would seem to be one of the messages of the new French film “Aliyah,” directed and co-written by Elie Wajeman. It’s a deft, smart first feature and, not surprisingly, Wajeman’s protagonist seems doomed to find that the problems he will encounter in Tel Aviv are not so different from the ones he is leaving behind in Paris.
Mind you, the problems facing Alex (Pio Marmai) in Paris are pretty immense. His ne’er-do-well brother Isaac (film director Cedric Kahn, making his acting debut for Wajeman) is constantly sponging off him, apparently to pay off loan sharks. Alex barely speaks to his father and his mother is dead. His ex-girlfriend Esther is getting married. He’s becoming involved with Jeanne (Adèle Haenel), but he’s fighting the attraction. Oh, and he’s stepping up his involvement with drug dealing in a desperate effort to fund his move to Israel and a share in his cousin’s new restaurant. It’s a large enough platter of trouble to make running away seem like a good move. (His family seems to have retained its Jewish identity pretty well, but he is almost willfully ignorant of Hebrew and in general seems rather an unlikely candidate for Israeli citizenship.)
Wajeman, whose main work apparently consists of a short film made nearly five years ago, chose to shoot the entire film in hand-held camera and longish takes. His restless but steady camera follows Alex wherever he goes, so for much of the film we feel as if we are eavesdropping on him. Several key moments of the film are glimpsed through half-open doorways, with conversations seemingly overheard by chance. As a result, we never really get inside Alex’s consciousness, a ploy that pays handsome dividends as his personal crises begin to merge into a single potentially lethal mess. Israel may look promising, but we are not in a position to judge his sincerity or the depth of his commitment.
“Aliyah” made a big splash when it played last year’s Directors’ Fortnight program at the Cannes Film Festival, a showcase of rising young talent, and it isn’t hard to see why. Wajeman appears to have assimilated the lessons of both neo-realism and the French New Wave, skillfully using unfamiliar Paris locations and the haphazard interiors that one encounters in reality rather than in the movies. The expert camerawork of David Chizallet gives the film a combination of restless nervous energy and intense concentration reminiscent of the films of Dardenne brothers, and Wajeman’s interest in family as the ties that bind and gag also echoes their work.
The film is also an excellent showcase for the next generation of French actors. Marmai is a coiled spring, exuding an interesting mixture of tension and humor in a carefully graded performance. Haenel continues to grow as an actress of considerable charm, but with a dark undercurrent that makes her work intriguingly unpredictable. Kahn, who was Wajeman’s instructor in film school, is an oddly appealing presence, an engaging grifter with rumpled charm.
“Aliyah” has an open ending that leaves viewers wondering if Alex has really changed his life or merely exchanged the grayish cityscapes of Paris for the light-gilded ones of Tel Aviv. What will happen to him after the credits finish rolling is anyone’s guess, but Wajeman is clearly a filmmaker whose work will be worth watching.
“Aliyah” opens Friday, June 14 at the Cinema Village (22 E. 12th St.). For information, call (212) 924-3363 or go to www.cinemavillage.com. Elie Wajeman will be present at the 7:30 p.m. screenings Friday and Saturday nights.