La Petite Jerusalem is a French film about life in an orthodox
Jewish suburb of Paris. The story focuses on two sisters. One of them is a
philosophy student who is trying to live as an intellectual while curbing her
physical desires. Her older sister is a very devout wife and mother of three. Both end
up in a crisis centered around a conflict between sex and orthodox law or
Elsa Zylberstein, as the older sister Mathilde, discovers that her
husband has been cheating on her. He freely admits it, but claims he did it
out of respect for her, so he could take care of desires that his wife had no
interest in. When Mathilde visits the Mikveh, the woman
attendant, who is also an expert on religious law, informs her that she can
actually touch her husband's privates, and give and receive pleasure in many
different ways, as long as they lead up to intercourse.
Let's pause briefly here for a short culture lesson. Before marriage, after
childbirth, and seven days after the end of her period, an orthodox woman must
submerse herself in a cleansing pool of water called a Mikveh, to purify
herself for sexual relations with her husband. In fact, an orthodox community
is required to build a Mikveh even before a synagogue. The Mikveh is probably
the origin of Christian baptism.
The younger sister is not as fortunate. Fanny Valette, as the young Laura,
begins to fall in love with an Arab she meets in her job of custodian in a
school. Nothing in her family situation, or in the Arab's family situation,
will even consider the two being together.
When the synagogue is burned, and Mathilde's husband is beaten while trying
to coach a soccer game, he decides that the family will immigrate to Israel.
Laura will stay behind.
While I usually like cross-cultural films, this
one moves too slowly for my taste, and presents too much detail of both
philosophy and religious law. The human side is no better. Both female leads
seem cool and detached, so it's difficult to care about their problems.