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CANNES – A slow-burning street drama set in the gritty confines of Northeast Paris, Aliyah (Alyah) reps an intriguing and well-realized feature debut for writer-director Elie Wajeman. Reminiscent of the early films of James Gray, this brooding portrait of a Jewish drug dealer caught between family ties and dreams of a better life is backed by strong lead performances from a cast of relative newcomers, including an impressive turn by French auteur Cedric Kahn (Red Lights). While the film’s modest action and suspense may prevent it from breaking out big time, this Cannes Directors’ Fortnight entry should emigrate abroad via fests and specialty distributors.
Alex (Pio Marmai) is a low-level hashish dealer who has a hard time refusing the demands of his older bro, Isaac (Kahn), a smooth-talking freeloader forever in need of a loan. Stuck in a rather dismal working class neighborhood in Paris’ 19th arrondissement, Alex eventually sees a way out when his cousin (David Geselson) tells him about plans to open up a restaurant in Tel Aviv.
But before he can accomplish his “aliyah” (the term for Jews who immigrate back to Israel), Alex needs to both save up sufficient funds and rediscover his roots, for which he takes Hebrew lessons with his ex-girlfriend (Sarah Le Picard) and delves into his family’s past.
As the departure date nears, two major monkey wrenches are thrown Alex’s way: Not only does he begin to grow attached to the sultry student, Jeanne (Adele Haenel), but Isaac keeps coming back for more money, emotionally blackmailing his brother into giving away his coveted savings. Forced to start dealing coke in order to cover his travel plans, Alex needs to make it out of Paris before the walls close in around him.
A graduate of the prestigious French film school La Femis, Wajeman maintains a consistently dark tone throughout the narrative (co-written with Gaelle Mace, Leaving), which is less of a fervent race-against-the-clock than it is a moody character study with a slight genre hitch to it. While guns are never drawn and the violence is mostly of the verbal kind, Alex nonetheless becomes a hero whose quest to escape the ‘hood is not without a certain underlying tension and a few minor twists.
Having already showcased his talents in the comedies Delicacy and A Happy Event, Marmai aptly portrays Alex as a lost soul whose pipedream of moving abroad is really just a way to escape his own demons – something that Jeanne points out in a poignant café scene which happens late in the film. And while Alex seems to embrace Judaism only so he can obtain a visa and skip town, there’s something deeper and darker at work in his character’s efforts to both push his family aside and connect with his origins.
As the troubled Isaac, Kahn manages to turn everyone’s worst nightmare of an older brother into someone to be pitied, and Wajeman is particularly skillful at obscuring the lines between right and wrong, setting his story in a a dog-eat-dog world whose moral compass is slightly askew.
Widescreen cinematography by David Chizallet vividly captures the bleak housing blocks where Alex does his deals, and from where the swankier parts of Paris are but blurred lights in the distance.
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Directors’ Fortnight)
Production companies: 24 Mai Production, Les Films Pelleas
Cast: Pio Marmai, Cedric Kahn, Adele Haenel, Guillaume Gouix, Sarah Le Picard, David Geselson, Olivier Desautel
Director: Elie Wajeman
Screenwriters: Elie Wajeman, Gaelle Mace
Producer: Lola Gans
Director of photography: David Chizallet
Production designer: Gaelle Usandivaras
Costume designer: Catherine Rigault
Editor: Francois Quiquere
Sales Agent: Rezo World Sales
No rating, 87 minutes
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