Religious practice, especially of the Jewish kind, is often an iffy matter on screen. As dramatized in such recent films as “A Stranger Among Us” and “A Price Above Rubies,” Orthodox Judaism is rendered tantalizingly foreign. When the modern world intrudes in these films, as it inevitably does, the result is a clash of matter and anti-matter, with the Jewish world depicted as a tightly huddled, constricting universe from which a single step in any direction leaves one adrift in a confusing secular world. At first glance, the new French film “La Petite Jerusalem” (named after a Jewish suburb near Paris) bears a distinct resemblance to previous films on the subject: Laura (Fanny Valette), youngest daughter of Tunisian Jewish immigrants, is pushed by her family to marry — while finding herself attracted to a co-worker, Algerian expat Djamel (Hédi Tillette de Clermont-Tonnerre). But on closer inspection, “La Petite Jerusalem” comes off as a smarter, far more sensitive depiction of the lives of religious French Jews than its predecessors.
Laura may feel constricted by living in close quarters with her mother, her sister, Mathilde (Elsa Zylberstein), and her brother-in-law, Ariel (Bruno Todeschini), along with their four children, but she also has another life, as a student of philosophy. A disciple of Kant, she attempts to impose Kantian rigor and order onto her own life, scheduling a daily walk and carefully constricting her emotions to protect her intellectual work. A professor describes Kant’s walls of ritual as necessary to protect himself from his own personality, to honor his thought and to maintain his celibacy, and all three seem equally applicable to Laura. (Jewish ritual is a constant presence here — from the morning prayer that begins Laura’s day, to the Sabbath meals where the whole family gathers together. While occasionally flubbing some details, the film gets the nuances of Jewish life correct, down to the proper pronunciation of Hebrew words.)
On Laura’s disastrous sole visit to Djamel’s home, we are struck less by the disparities of their lives than by the common bonds. In the end, both are imprisoned by their traditions and by their families, intellectuals whose only home is among those who cannot or will not understand their passions. Djamel’s and Laura’s families may be Muslims and Jews, but as Algerians and Tunisians, they are practically neighbors, and “La Petite Jerusalem” offers a bittersweet portrait of cross-cultural lack of understanding.
The entire film takes place under a growing cloud of antisemitism in France. The local synagogue is burned to the ground, victim of an arson attack, and Ariel is beaten mercilessly by local thugs on the soccer pitch. When Laura’s family decides to pick up and leave the country, she stays behind, but “La Petite Jerusalem” is no simplistic either/or. Laura is back at school, a look of contentment finally dashing across her face, but she is still clad in the same modest dress, as always. Laura may have take baby steps away from Judaism, but the world she embraces is a distinctly Jewish one.