When a Yeshiva Bocher Loves a Hooker

Sitting at a French Cafe in Westwood, Eitan Gorlin comes across as the very antithesis of the Hollywood self-promoter. The writer-director of “The Holy Land” has indeed kept such a low profile that, during months of inquiries, his name drew an absolute blank among Israel film mavens in Tel Aviv and Los Angeles.

But the debut feature by this unknown has already won remarkable recognition in America, including an Independent Spirit nomination for Gorlin as “Someone to Watch.”

For now, Gorlin is focusing on his film. “‘The Holy Land’ shows the underbelly of real life in Jerusalem after the tourists and Orthodox families go to sleep,” he said.

Yet the film packs a great deal more into its 96 minutes.

On the slender storyline of a young, sheltered yeshiva student who falls in love with an even younger Russian prostitute, “The Holy Land” ranges across the Israeli landscape of the late 1990s, with its ultra-Orthodox Haredim, ultra-religious Zionist settlers, Arab collaborators and terrorists and Russian and American immigrants.

The film’s protagonist is Mendy, who is studying at a yeshiva in B’nai B’rak and finds it increasingly hard to keep his thoughts off women and sex and on Torah reading. His rabbi advises him to “get it out of his system” by visiting a prostitute.

Mendy takes off for Jerusalem and, at a strip club, meets Sasha, a 19-year-old prostitute from the Ukraine. The inexperienced Mendy falls hard for the hooker, while vaguely hoping to “save” her, and, in turn, she introduces him to Mike’s Place.

The seedy pub in East Jerusalem is run by Mike, a big, blustery American ex-war photographer, whose joint is a combination of Rick’s Cafe in a postmodern “Casablanca” and the cantina in “Star Wars.”

Yet the pull of Mendy’s early and simpler religious life grows as his new secular experiences and relationships become more complex and disturbing. The resolution of this internal conflict in the movie’s last minutes adds the ultimate shocker to the iconoclastic film.

The struggle between the secular and religious poles in Israel, in the lives of individuals as in the general society, is an evolving theme for filmmakers and writers. Since “The Holy Land” represents such a singular, largely autobiographical, vision, Gorlin’s own background serves as a useful program guide.

At 34, Gorlin’s life has moved between the religious and worldly poles and has encompassed the bohemian restlessness and searching of the American expatriate writers of the 1920s.

He was born in Silver Springs, Md., studied at The Yeshiva of Greater Washington (D.C.) and, after graduating at 17, headed for Israel and enrolled at the national religious Yeshiva Sha’alvim.

After a stint as a congressional intern in Washington, the wandering spirit struck again. For the next two years he lived in Paris, London, Prague, Cairo, Calcutta, Bangkok, Saigon and Hanoi, doing odd jobs as waiter, bartender, party promoter and street performer.

He interrupted his global tramping for a three-year stay in Israel, during which he served as a gunner in an Israeli army tank unit, and met the real-life Mike, who hired him as a bartender.

(Mike’s Place subsequently moved to Tel Aviv, where it was blown up by two British Arab terrorists in April of this year.)

Returning again to the United States, Gorlin wrote three scripts and a novella, titled “Mike’s Place, a Jerusalem Diary,” which became the basis of the movie.

At the end of 1999, he had raised enough private money (he won’t disclose how much) to return to Israel and, for one solid year, worked 20 hours a day, seven days a week, to cast and shoot “The Holy Land.” For the principal roles he cast two sabras: 23-year-old Oren Rehary as Mendy and 19-year-old Tchelet Semel as Sasha, with American actor Saul Stein portraying Mike.

Once the film was in the can, nobody wanted to screen it. “We were turned down by every Jewish film festival in the United States and by the Jerusalem Festival in Israel,” he said.

Finally, on a sudden impulse, he entered his picture in the 2002 Slamdance Film Festival.

“The Holy Land” was not only one of the 14 feature films accepted among 1,000 applicants, but it walked off with the top Grand Jury Prize. Success bred success. Gorlin won the 21st Century Filmmaker Award at the Avignon/New York Film Festival, and later was nominated for the Independent Spirit “Someone to Watch” award.

After these successes, an American film distributor, CAVU Pictures, finally showed up, signed Gorlin to a contract, and the picture is currently slated for some 15 cities.

Like Mendy, Gorlin keeps struggling with his religious identity.

“We seem to be the chosen people of an angry God. Maybe we’re doing something wrong,” he said. “Part of me wants to reject God, but I can’t do it.”

“The Holy Land” opens Aug. 1 at select Laemmle Theatres.For more information, visit www.laemmle.com/theatres .