"La Petite Jérusalem": Finding a truce between faith and desire

With her assured feature debut, "La Petite Jérusalem," French writer-director Karin Albou instantly becomes a talented newcomer to watch. Taking its title from the Parisian suburb of Sarcelles, known as "Little Jerusalem" because of its large Jewish community, this thoughtful, skillfully crafted drama focuses on two sisters caught in different struggles of mind, body and spirit.

Rich in perceptive details, Albou's film has drawn favorable comparison to the work of Claire Denis ("The Intruder," "Friday Night"), and both directors share a sensual sensitivity to their characters' inner lives.

Movie review 3 stars

"La Petite Jérusalem," with Fanny Valette, Elsa Zylberstein, Hedi Tillette de Clermont-Tonnerre. Written and directed by Karin Albou. 96 minutes. In French and Hebrew, with English subtitles. Not rated; contains nudity, sexuality, mild language. Grand Illusion.

Take the opening shot, for example: 18-year-old Laura (Fanny Valette) is dressing for an Orthodox Jewish ritual; the tug of knitted stockings over smooth thighs, and her focused reading of the Torah, concisely summarize the tug-of-war she'll experience between devotion to her rigidly traditional family and her intensifying sexual desires. Add a passion for philosophy (especially the structured mental discipline of Immanuel Kant), plus the intriguing affections of an Algerian Muslim named Djamel (Hedi Tillette de Clermont-Tonnerre) and you've got the first, bold steps toward independent adulthood.

Laura's sister Mathilde (Elsa Zylberstein) is conflicted by an unfaithful husband and her devout commitment to God and marriage. Her cherished modesty (she wears a knitted snood or wigs to cover her hair; Laura does not) makes her initially reluctant to visit a "mikvah lady," a kind of Orthodox sex counselor, beautifully played by veteran French actress Aurore Clément. Her gradual realization that marriage and a more open attitude toward sex are not mutually exclusive leads to a revival of passion that Albou films with flawless discretion.

For all this sexual awakening, "La Petite Jérusalem" never disregards the foundations of faith that Laura and Mathilde's lives are built upon. Laura's subtle smile at film's end is anything but prurient; in the film's context of anti-Semitic tension and stern familial scrutiny, she's earned her satisfaction.

Jeff Shannon: j.sh@verizon.net