Here it is, just a few days before Rosh Hashana, and I wound up watching JeruZalem, which is set on Rosh Hashana. The film was made in 2015, but is now available on most major streaming services, including Amazon Prime and Netflix.
The film received lukewarm reviews when it came out, but I think it is worth revisiting, in part because it’s an unusual movie, and in part because there are so few films we can watch that are specifically about Rosh Hashana. The characters in the film even make a point of looking up at the night sky at once point, locating the three stars that demonstrate the holiday has begun.
The film’s pleasures aren’t really in its plotting, which critics mostly shrugged off as fairly typical for a found footage horror film, and they’re right. The film is a sort of mish-mash of Cloverfield’s recurring image of young people running in city and Blair Witch’s recurring image of young people running in the dark. It’s also sort of a zombie film, in that things rise from their grave and if they bite you, you become one of them.
If you like this sort of thing, well, it’s not badly done here, but is hardly superlative. The CGI looks very CGI, the young people are likeable but sketched in, and the scare scenes are sometimes badly blocked and more confusing then terrifying.
However, the city these kids have found themselves trapped in is Jerusalem, and really is Jerusalem, as Israeli directors Doron and Yoav Paz reportedly filmed a lot of it surreptitiously in the Israeli city.
The cast is entirely Israeli, although, delightfully, three of them are pretending to be American, and the film is in English. As a result, an accidental subtext of the film is that it mildly satirizes what Israelis think American Jews are like. Apparently, they see us as attractive and dopey in equal measure, addicted to social media, and possessing a real likelihood of sudden religiously inspired psychotic breakdowns. Which seems a little unfair, but also is probably pretty accurate.
The film ends up touring the Old City in Jerusalem, which is fun, with the streets filled with Hasids of both the black hat and peyos-bedecked variety and the Breslover sort, the latter wearing their iconic white knit beanies and dancing ecstatically to music. But behind unassuming doors there are bars with brass bands playing what sound like high-speed Balkan marches while young people get drunk and make out in the bathrooms, which makes Jerusalem seem like a pretty attractive place to visit.
Unfortunately, this is a horror movie, so the fun stops pretty quickly as the eschaton starts. The dead spill out of their graves, grow wings, and set to gnawing on people as everybody flees to the walled city’s various gates, which are guarded by the military with orders to shoot anyone who tries to break out.
The film makes about as good use of Jerusalem as Cloverfield did of New York, building its set pieces around the actual geography of the city but then abandoning it for a long stretch underground, which is supposed to be terrifying but ends up being a little disappointing for those of us who have suddenly discovered we can use horror movies as cheap vacations.
The film does manage a few neat tricks of its own. There are, for example, giants that we sometimes see wandering around Jerusalem, and a ranting stranger points at them and declares “Nephilim!”
These were, of course, the giant sons of God and human women mentioned in the book of Genesis, and where else are you going to see that? The whole thing is recorded through, essentially, Google Glass spectacles, which has face-recognition software that works by placing little virtual rectangles around someone’s mouth and eyes, which is irritating at first but has a delicious payoff when, in total darkness, it starts making those little rectangles, as though it were able to see faces we cannot and is trying to identify them.
The film is mostly set in a section of Muslim Quarter where, from the roof of a hostel, you can see a church, a temple, and a mosque, all in close proximity, which prefigures a scene in which three of the film’s characters, a Christian, a Jew, and a Muslim, all sit down in terror and start to pray their respective prayers in their respective languages, which feels like an image particular to this story and this setting.
Narratively, it’s not entirely clear why the Americans have gone to Israel. Although they explain that they are Jewish, neither seem that into it, and they haven’t taken the trip through any sort of established program, which many American Jews do, but instead just lit off on their own. A lot of these programs are intended to either encourage American support of Israel or (quietly) to get Jews to find Jewish romantic partners, and our heroes (Yael Grobglas and Danielle Jadelyn, specifically) fail to do either. They tour mostly Muslim and Christian sites (and one has an unexpectedly hostile reaction to the Western Wall), and then one hooks up with a Christian while the other makes out with a Muslim.
Maybe that’s the real hidden satire of the film. That if you let American Jews go off on their own in Jerusalem, they will entirely fail to accomplish what we want them to accomplish. Indeed, at one point, the Christian fellow buys a white dress for one of the women, because Jews wear white on Rosh Hashana, and she completely fails to wear it.
That’s the real apocalypse. It’s not zombie-like angels and Old Testament giants running rampant in the Holy City. It’s American Jews gone wild, and, even in the Jewish holy city, utterly failing to be the sorts of Jews their parents want them to be. One even gets a call from her father — and refuses it. The film rightfully treats this as part of the horror.
Come to think of it, I can’t think of a more Jewish scene even filmed in a horror movie. She later calls and apologizes, so the film might be worth watching on Yom Kippur as well.
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