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In 'Jerusalem,' a conflict between faith, desire

``Little Jerusalem" is about a young woman's burning conflict between her Jewish Orthodox roots and her growing estrangement from them. All right, her conflict doesn't burn. In fact, it never even boils in Karin Albou's thoughtful but dull first film, a serious-minded, self-conscious family drama set in Sarcelles, a Parisian suburb whose large Jewish population gives the film its title.

Laura (Fanny Valette) lives in a cramped modern apartment with her widowed mom (Sonia Tahar); her older sister, Mathilde (Elsa Zylberstein); her sister's sexually frustrated husband (Bruno Todeschini); and a few small, rambunctious children. Since she discovered Western philosophy, she's had no use for her mother's belief in spells or beautiful Mathilde's strict adherence to the Torah. Her mother once set her up with a nice successful boy, but she'd rather read Kant than have a boyfriend.

Naturally, desire takes hold anyway, but the object of Laura's attraction is an Arab Muslim classmate (Hédi Tillette de Clermont-Tonnerre), who, like her, was born in Tunisia and, like her, is experiencing secular drift. They have everything in common but the one detail that matters. Yet the ``Little Jerusalem" is neither the interfaith tragedy it ought to be nor the searing sex-awakening tale it wants to be.

Instead, this is a film of emotional abstraction, in which blandly principled people are saddled with dialogue that never feels credibly philosophical -- during a make - out scene, Laura asks, ``Am I moving toward the darkness or toward the light?" -- or like the stuff of everyday life. Albou's characters are idealizations: The characters' faith and intellectual lives are not aspects of who they are, they're all these people are, none of which is terribly compelling under these confined circumstances. Maybe Albou intends to suggest that religious devotion is suffocating and unhappy business. Whether or not this is case, her Jews seem to receive little pleasure from their belief.

That mirthless approach goes for the sex, too. When Mathilde confesses to a sort of kosher sex therapist (Aurore Clément, terrific in a small role) her fear that pleasing her husband is a sin, the older woman exclaims, ``Pleasure is authorized by Jewish law!" It takes Albou too long to confirm this. Laura, who hears the therapist advice, does have a brief moment of autoeroticism, but it's tardy, and it's bad. (Is the ripping of a pearl necklace a symbolic sensual act?) Another encounter is shot from angles that make it hard to tell who's doing what to whom.

Watching Laura negotiate her carnal, intellectual, and religious predicaments, I thought a lot about Sofia Coppola's ``The Virgin Suicides" and Lucrecia Martel's ``The Holy Girl," which were, far more ambitiously, also about God, existentialism, and teen lust. Albou isn't the lyrical filmmaker the other women are. You're rooting for her to use her obvious intelligence to tap into a similar sense of wonder or, at least, perspective. But she holds back -- maybe as a matter of artistic limitation, maybe in the name of good taste. Either way, what's left is a movie whose sexual chastity and religious confusion often feel like a kind of shame.

Wesley Morris can be reached at

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