Cinema Signal:

The Jews of Modern France

. "La Petite Jerusalem"
[Ed. note: because of the unpredictable way accented letters are rendered in English language browsers, they have been intentionally omitted.]

This charming insight into Jewish life in Paris doesn't hold back on exposing most of the issues that an ethnic family faces in a mixed, low income community of western society. Centering on the pretty Laura (Fanny Valette) as our main person of interest and dramatic potential, writer-director Karin Albou takes us through the difficulties of turning her back on family tradition while dependent on it for love, acceptance, comfort and sustenance.

Her older sister Mathilde (Elsa Zylberstein) is on her case about not solving her problems and pursuing her happiness with a dedication to their religion. Showing considerable modernism and restraint, Laura tolerates her sister's rant while formally studying western thought and philosophy on the university level. Kant is the professor's current subject and Laura adopts the theories down to the daily walk the philosopher advised. Seven o'clock, she's out the door, no matter what.

It doesn't hurt that she passes Djamel (Hedi Tillette de Clermont-Tonnerre) on her route since an attraction for her Muslim co-worker has been building. Her free-thinking allows her all the freedom she could want, and passion envelops the couple until it leads to a confrontation with his devout family that outright rejects any possibility of a marriage. In that rejection she sees the mirror image reaction of her own family, her old-country mother, her hasidic brother-in-law Ariel (Bruno Todeschini), and her modest and strict sister.

But, significantly for Laura, her submission to her passion for a man demonstrates the power of first-time feelings of not being alone, expressly on the emotional level, something that puts a spin on the study of philosophy and turns her onto a new direction.

Mathilde is destined for a turnaround as well when she discovers that her prayerful husband has been seeing another woman because of what she will and won't do in the wedding bed.

A group of thugs beat Ariel up while playing a game in an open field to demonstrate the pervasive racial hatred that persists in the low-income community.

Vallette, an actress with a growing list of French TV roles, who continually reminded me of Emmy Rossum ("The Phantom"), carries the film with allure and involvement in bringing to life a young woman coming to terms with a faith that clashes with her own values and sensibilities. In this, she's a suitable stand-in for thousands of youths of many faiths with parents clinging to old-world values in an adopted country.

Albou makes unusual choices in depicting the coming-of-age conflicts of such a woman as Laura, going in directions that truly belong in the arthouse. Fatherless family, questions of fidelity to a religion and its laws being challenged by strictly secular alternatives, "staining" the devout with too much sexual expression (Laura) and not enough (Mathilde). Good for her and for a little adventurism with the norms of the theme... even though the film as a whole doesn't build gut level drama.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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Hedi Tillette de Clermont-Tonnere and Fanny Valette
When ardor is shadowed by overruling issues.
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