AlexCloseUpWith his life on a downward trajectory, “Alex” (Pio Marmai) considers leaving Paris to work for a cousin in Tel Aviv. Kept us guessing what would happen next right up to the very end. Rich thought the screenplay (co-written by director Elie Wajeman with Gaëlle Macé) got a bit overstuffed, but Jan was totally hooked. For non-Jews film stands on its own, but for Jews, add profound Diasporic identity issues. (JLH: 4/5) Click HERE for our FF2 Haiku.

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Sometimes—no matter who we are, no matter what we do—we feel the walls closing in on us and we just want to get out… Then our entanglements (and our fear of the unknown?) pull us back and we typically stay put. But there have always been people—most often young men—who feel the urge to go once too often until finally they’re off.

American culture is filled with these archetypes—like Wyatt Earp—who went West to seek fame, fortune, or whatever in the silver mountains of Nevada, the golden rivers of California, the oil fields of Texas, or wherever the next hot rumor surfaced. But I suspect even a thousand years ago, a similar urge transformed young Scandinavian farmers into Vikings who took to the sea and spread their seed from the North Sea across the Mediterranean and from the Baltic Sea down the Volga.

It’s harder to disappear now (what with the borders between nation states growing ever tighter and the ubiquity of cell phones and social media sites spreading ever further), but people seeking a new start can still find one. And for young Jews, that place of new beginnings is sometimes Israel.

So when you go to see Aliyah—and I hope you do—do not go looking for political content because you won’t find any. The film never debates the pros and cons of “The Law of Return” which enables Jews in the Diaspora to claim Israeli citizenship, and it certainly never entertains the question of a Palestinian “Right of Return” to homes lost after Israel became a nation in 1948. For “Alex Raphaelson” (Pio Marmaï), a young man born and raised in Paris, “The Law of Return” simply provides an option which he has because he was born to Jewish parents, even though he has lived his life so far with almost no connection whatsoever to Judaism as a religion.

(For the record, “aliyah” is the Hebrew word for “ascend,” the same word used when Jews are called to the pulpit to say prayers before a reading from the weekly Torah portion. In English, “aliyah” is a noun. For example: “I had an aliyah at my brother’s Bar Mitzvah.” Or “My goal is to make aliyah to Israel next year.”)

Aliyah was written and directed by first-time filmmaker Elie Wajeman who chose well-established French screenwriter Gaëlle Macé as his writing partner. (I saw her film The Place in Between a few years back at the Chicago International Film Festival and I loved it.) Together Wajeman and Macé have created a finely balanced screenplay that beautifully captures why Alex is so desperate to flee Paris, but also makes us painfully aware of personal treasures he will leave behind if he goes.

At this point I could tell you a whole lot about the plot of Aliyah: how Alex has stumbled into a life of petty crime at least in part to pay off the gambling debts of his errant older brother “Isaac” (Cedric Kahn); how Alex begins to think of Israel as an option after his dead mother’s sister (Brigitte Jaques Wajeman) invites him to a family dinner one Shabbat; how he meets a woman there named “Jeanne” (Adèle Haenel) who gives him every reason to stay put; how the Israeli authorities complicate his life by asking for documentation he can only get by visiting his estranged—and now remarried—father (Jean-Marie Winling). Well, that’s enough plot. The point is that Wajeman and Macé have turned a tense thriller about the drug trade into a rich character study deep with meaning and punctuated by hot sex scenes. Vive La France!

Holding all this together is a terrific central performance by Pio Marmaï as Alex, who now joins the list of great Italian actors who have fully embodied Jewish characters. Who? Well, Robert DeNiro in Casino and Once Upon a Time in America, Sal Mineo in Exodus, and Joe Mantegna, who played Jewish men in the David Mamet films Homicide and Redbelt as well as Liberty Heights (directed by Barry Levinson, who, like Mamet, is Jewish), and also played “Fred Waitzkin” in Searching for Bobby Fisher (written and directed by Steve Zallian who got an Oscar for his Schindler’s List screenplay but is actually of Armenian heritage). This is quite a list but Marmaï, with his burning intensity and soulful eyes, has earned his place honorably (“He worked for it.”), and I hope Aliyah is the beginning of a great career for him.

Bottom Line: See Aliyah! You don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s 🙂


Top Photo: Pio Marmaï as “Alex Raphaelson.”

Bottom Photo: Marmaï with Adèle Haenel (as Jeanne).

Photo Credits: Pallier-Colinot Aurelien & Carole Bethuel/Film Movement

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