Holy Lands is an odd, occasionally successful film about the dialogue between family, friendships, and faith. Taking place simultaneously in Nazareth and New York, the film traverses countries and faiths to try to find the heart of what unites a family. Harry Rosemerck (James Caan) is a lapsed Jew who moves to Nazareth to start a pig farm, largely as an act of defiance against Judaism itself. He particularly enrages Moshe (Tom Hollander), a local rabbi, with whom he develops a conflict-laden relationship. Harry is estranged from his son, David (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), a successful New York playwright, with whom he can only communicate via letter. His daughter, Annabelle (Efrat Dor), is a photographer who can barely support herself, migrating between Israel and New York to see both her parents. Meanwhile, Harry’s ex-wife, Monica (Rosanna Arquette), finds herself at a crossroads when she’s diagnosed with terminal cancer. The film tries to combine these disparate familial narratives, each of them shaped and influencing the other, as it interrogates the meanings behind faith, love for family, and the development of some unlikely friendships.
When Holy Lands succeeds, it’s a moving, humorous film; when it fails, it’s difficult to follow or to invest in. The result is a curious, imbalanced narrative that would have been better for one or two fewer plot strands. Yet each of the strands also feels essential to an understanding of the others, and it would be hard to claim that you could lose any character or actor and maintain the same meaning. Most entertaining is the contentious and charming relationship between Caan’s irascible Harry and Hollander’s equally immovable Moshe. As the pair circle each other and spar over matters of practicality and faith, Holy Lands finds its most comfortable footing. There’s a sense that director Amanda Sthers knows that this is the story to be told, and that the others, as interesting as they are in places, are really ancillary to it.
However, Rosanna Arquette’s equally intense performance should not be lost. As Monica comes to accept her approaching death and attempts to reconnect with both her children, who love her but also find her difficult to handle, Arquette gives one of her finest, most nuanced performances. She’s multitudinous and sympathetic but also impossible, and her adoration of her family and equal inability to connect to them bears the soul of Holy Lands. But her narrative feels too independent in itself, and Holy Lands isn’t quite able to integrate her story with that of her children or her ex-husband.
Amanda Sthers writes and directs from her own novel, which explains Holy Lands’ sense of the personal combined with its undoubted messiness. The film is in need of restructuring and development, with an eye to creating a more stable narrative that allows for rising and falling action. An hour and forty minutes simply does not have the fluidity that a three hundred page novel does, and the result is an imbalanced work that never quite hits the right notes. Sthers appears to want to tell a story about generational conflict and separation, but also about the interaction between faith and culture, but also about a Jewish man trying to raise and sell pigs in Israel. The result is that none of the stories receive the attention that they warrant, even though buried within each are some fantastic characters and emotional beats.
Holy Lands is not a bad film by any stretch, and at times it even aspires to greatness. But it misses its mark too often and loses coherency in attempting to move between the stories, integrate them together, and succeed in doing justice to all the characters. The film just doesn’t quite work, yet it is also an admirable attempt, and reveals a director and writer that bears watching.
Holy Lands officially releases on June 21.