It is a commonplace notion that historical fictions are not about the period in which they are set but, rather, the period in which they are created. Elie Chouraqui’s new film, “O Jerusalem,” which opens Oct. 17, is a case in point.
“O Jerusalem” is an adaptation of the best-selling book by Dominique Lapierre and Larry Collins, a spirited journalistic recreation of the end of the British Mandate era in Palestine and the birth of the State of Israel. This is a story that has been told in fiction before, most notably in Otto Preminger’s 1960 film “Exodus,” based on the Leon Uris novel, but Chouraqui chose as his source material a non-fiction work, which he then proceeded to give a set of ostensibly representative fictional protagonists.
Therein lies both the film’s major problem and a clue to how much even adamantly pro-Zionist filmmakers have altered their perspectives on the Middle East in the nearly 50 years since the Preminger film.
When a filmmaker is faced with a true-life historical tale, there is a basic problem: how do you keep an audience engaged when they know how the story ends? In a big war epic like “The Longest Day,” the solution is to focus less on the big story and more on individual players whose fate will be unknown to all but the most obsessive researchers. The other alternative is to manufacture fictional characters, usually composites of several historical figures, and to give them a more conventional dramatic arc that will, one hopes, engage the emotions of the audience.
Chouraqui and co-screenwriter Didier Lepecheur opted for the latter solution, making the focus of their screenplay the fictionalized exploits of Bobby Goldman (J.J. Feild), Said Chahine (Said Taghmaoui) and their circle of friends. This choice enables them to represent the liberal Zionist viewpoint with Goldman, the liberal Palestinian viewpoint with Chahine, and the range of more radical (and to the filmmakers, unpalatable) politics of pan-Arab nationalists and Revisionist Zionists with a variety of characters we meet in the film’s opening scenes in postwar New York or upon Bobby’s arrival in the Middle East. In a sense, this is the same strategy that Preminger, Dalton Trumbo and Uris used for “Exodus,” albeit with significant differences that we’ll return to shortly.
If the central characters are well-written and their positions have some nuance, the result can be very effective. Regrettably, in “O Jerusalem” Chouraqui tries too hard to keep the narrative moving and, with a comparatively brief 104-minute running time (compared to 208 for “Exodus”), he is never able to flesh out Bobby, Said or the others with enough detail to raise them above the complexity of a political cartoon (although Feild struggles powerfully against the slenderness of the writing). Indeed, the film comes to life most emphatically in the scenes that have a firm basis in historical fact, particularly those with Tovah Feldshuh recapitulating her Broadway turn as Golda Meir; her one-on-one negotiations with King Abdallah provide by far the most memorable scene in the entire film.
The comparison between “O Jerusalem” and “Exodus” is a telling one. Aesthetically, the films are just not in the same ballpark with each other. Preminger brings a super sense of architecture to his epic, a sure grasp of the movement of masses of extras and the expressive use of landscape and décor. His direction is so sure that “Exodus” works despite a lumbering Trumbo script and giddy overacting from most of the principals, with the notable exceptions of Paul Newman, David Opatashu and Ralph Richardson.
The contrast with “O Jerusalem” is strikingly apparent from the first images and sounds of the new film. Stephen Endelman’s score is mournful and plaintive, never aiming for the triumphant quality of Ernest Gold’s music for Preminger. Chouraqui opens the film with its titles in English, Hebrew and Arabic; this is not your father’s story of the founding of Israel.
Let’s not belabor the obvious. The world’s attitude towards Israel and Israel’s attitude towards itself have changed, altered inevitably by events, by the perpetually shifting power relationships of Middle East realpolitik and the evolving role of Israel on the world stage. The supremely self-confident, quick-on-his-feet Ari ben Canaan of “Exodus” has given way to the battered, confused and frequently baffled Bobby Goldman of “O Jerusalem.” The Arabs who, for Preminger, were little more than a large obstacle like the Indians in a ’30s western, have been replaced by more sympathetic, complex characters, like Indians in a ’50s revisionist western. (Think “Stagecoach,” giving way to “Broken Arrow”).
“O Jerusalem” is a somber film, one in which violence is never cathartic, in which any sense of triumph is muted by loss and everyone emerges with visible wounds. In that respect, it is a more realistic view of the experience of war than the Preminger film. It’s unfortunate that it isn’t as good a piece of filmmaking. Chouraqui uses his smaller palette with some skill, but he is ultimately defeated by his own screenplay. Perhaps this story still needs to be told again.
“O Jerusalem” opens on Wednesday, Oct. 17 at the Village East Theater (181 Second Ave.) For information, call (212) 529-6998.