4:10 PM EDT, August 23, 2013
In the cool, trim French drama "Aliyah," now at Facets, everything good and true folds together with everything diagrammatic in a key scene, at a cafe, when one character draws another character an actual diagram of their relationship. The one with the pen, played by Adele Haenel, is a young Parisian woman, a gentile, falling for the story's protagonist, a Jewish drug dealer portrayed by Pio Marmai, who has some of Eric Bana's charm and intensity.
This man, named Alex, feels lost and alone in Paris, at odds with his own life. His plan is to find another one, in Tel Aviv. This aliyah, or return to Israel, requires reconnecting with his tenuous religious and ethnic roots, and coming up with $15,000 to buy into a cousin's restaurant that's soon to be built.
As Alex takes Hebrew lessons from an old flame, someone he has yet to get over, another, thornier relationship tugs at his heart: the one with his wastrel brother (played by Cedric Kahn). Constantly at the mercy of loan sharks, the reckless brother is trying to get his life in order. Alex regards him coolly one minute, angrily the next. To the tune of Sixto Rodriguez's "Sugar Man," among other tunes, "Aliyah" sends Alex on his drug-dealing rounds, in Paris at night, all the while keeping the character's emotions at a tantalizing remove.
"No one's asking me to stay," he says, explaining his immigration to Israel. Is Alex's half-full sense of himself enough to feed the film? For some it won't be; he's complicated in a rather shallow way, and the first-time feature director Elie Wajeman (a co-writer with Gaelle Mace) surely is aware he's made Alex's quest for a "certificate of Jewishness," among other things, seem somewhat callow.
Yet the craftsmanship, the observational touch, in "Aliyah" cannot be denied. Much is said between the lines in the scenes featuring Marmai and Haenel. The latter knows the former is a dealer. She doesn't mind. And that, like the scene in which she diagrams her love for him, points two ways: to a provocatively nuanced moral view, as well as to the feeling that the character hasn't been fleshed out entirely.
No MPAA rating (some language, sexual material and drug use)
Running time: 1:30; in French and Hebrew with English subtitles
Plays: Through Aug. 29 at Facets Cinematheque
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