Cinematic adaptation of 1970s tome speaks to current events

O Jerusalem

on October 19, 2007 by Wade Major

Even with such hotly anticipated heavy hitters as Lions for Lambs and Battle of Haditha yet to come, Hollywood’s pontificatory hand-wringing over terrorism, Islamism and religious strife in the Middle East is fast reaching a saturation point. Given that most of the current crop aims to do little more than narrowly dramatize specific events ripped from the headlines, one feels obligated to give props to Elie Chouraqui’s O Jerusalem just for trying something more historically grounded. That said, the French-born director’s very ambitious follow-up to 2000’s Harrison’s Flowers is definitely not a good film, too shrill and thematically ham-fisted to deliver anything more than a very rudimentary history lesson.

The story centers on an American Jew named Bobby Goldman (JJ Feild) and a Palestinian Arab named Saïd Chahine (boxer-turned-actor Saïd Taghmaoui) who meet in Europe at the end of World War II, become fast friends—despite their cultural and religious differences—and eventually relocate to Palestine on the eve of the 1947 United Nations-sanctioned partition that resulted in the creation of Israel. That pivotal geopolitical moment, however, and the Arab-Israeli war that followed, send devastating ripples through their friendship, landing them on opposing sides of the conflict, ultimately costing them both dearly.

Loosely based on the 1971 Larry Collins/Dominique Lapierre nonfiction book of the same name, O Jerusalem bears all the hallmarks of a Lapierre saga, fiction or nonfiction. Previous film adaptations of his work, namely 1966’s Is Paris Burning? (also based on a work co-written with Collins) and 1992’s City of Joy, have all manifested a similar romantic attachment to the broad sweep of historical events, the very sensibility that made the reduction in O Jerusalem so accessible to readers of the 1970s. But the interweaving of factual figures and events with the maudlin and overwrought story of friends separated by war—hardly an original premise—renders a result that feels resolutely like the kind of drippy historical melodrama that was once de rigeur for studio stars in the 1950s and 1960s (Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing among others). Ian Holm as a hilariously temperamental Ben Gurion and Tovah Feldshuh as a predictably catty Golda Meir are but the most obvious missteps here, distractions that suggest severely divided intentions on the part of Chouraqui and his co-writer, Didier Lepecheur.

Those with no knowledge of the historical events themselves will invariably find something on which to cling—even in a film this awkward and clumsy, the events themselves retain an undeniable power, particularly in light of current events—but those seeking simply a good story set against a powerful historical backdrop are sure to be disappointed, both by the lackluster drama and the hastily sketched history, which squeezes a mini-series worth of material into a scant 90 minutes.

Talent contributions are a similarly mixed bag—French star Patrick Bruel shows up in a somewhat thankless supporting turn, apparently to help insure French co-production funding, while stars Feild and Taghmaoui are too often forced to compete with the likes of Holm and Feldshuh for screen time that rightfully should be theirs.

It may well be that a tome like O Jerusalem simply isn’t fit for dramatic adaptation, in which case the greater fault here has less to do with the execution than the intent. Still, such nagging problems cannot override the clear feeling that there is a need for such films, even if it means wading through a sea of bad ones to arrive at one that truly works.

Distributor: Samuel Goldwyn
Cast: JJ Feild, Saïd Taghmaoui, Daniel Lundh, Mel Raido, Patrick Bruel, Maria Papas, Peter Pollycarpou, Ian Holm, Tovah Feldshuh, Elie Chouraqui and Tom Conti
Director: Elie Chouraqui
Screenwriters: Elie Chouraqui and Didier Le Pecheur
Producers: André Djaoui, Elie Chouraqui, Jean-Charles Levy, Jean Frydman and Andy Grosch
Genre: Historical drama
Rating: R for some war scenes
Running time: 90 min.
Release date: October 19, 2007 ltd.

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