'Holy Lands': Film Review

Courtesy of Studio Canal
A holy mess.

James Caan, Rosanna Arquette, Tom Hollander and Jonathan Rhys Meyers headline French writer-director Amanda Sthers’ latest ensembler.

If you’re interested in a movie where James Caan plays a grumpy old retired cardiologist raising pigs in Israel, and one who used to be married to a younger woman, played by Rosanna Arquette, who now is stricken with terminal cancer, and who is also estranged from his playwright son (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), whose latest opus, titled Origins, punctuates the drama with several symbolic interpretive dance pieces, then maybe — just maybe — the film Holy Lands could be for you.

But for the rest of us, this treacly and overwrought piece of mishegoss from French novelist turned director Amanda Sthers is pretty much a chore from start to finish. In fact, a curmudgeonly Caan talking to his favorite little piglet may be one of the better things to see here, because at least there’s a tinge of sweetness to such a scene. The rest of the movie is mired by 12-ton clichés about family, love, death, God, religion, you name it — everything connected by portentous letters that the characters read aloud from separate continents. How this kind of film got made is a mystery; regarding its commercial prospects, the fact that it has yet to secure U.S. distribution is telling.

Sthers has written several books and helmed two other features: the airport-set network narrative You’ll Miss Me (2009) and the dinner comedy Madame (2017), the latter of which gave us the unlikely pairing of Harvey Keitel and Toni Colette as an embattered expat couple in Paris. Holy Lands is adapted from Sthers’ 2010 book of the same title, with the characters transformed from Frenchies to Americans, possibly for financing reasons, although given the level of dialogue the result should hardly be profitable.

Caan plays Harry Rosenmerck, a crabby New Yawka eking out his last days as a pig farmer in hostile religious territory, with an Orthodox rabbi, Moshe Cattan (Tom Hollander), and a coterie of violent Orthodox priests trying to shut him down. Why he’s doing this is never quite clear, although he seems to enjoy stirring up trouble and keeping as far away as he can from his ex-wife, Monica (Arquette), and their children: the famous dramaturge David (Rhys Meyers) and the globetrotting photographer Annabelle (Israeli actress Efrat Dor), who haven’t seen their dad in a long time.

While Harry is back in Israel arguing with Rabbi Cattan — at one point, Caan actually yells “Shabbat this!” and gives the rabbi the finger — David is gearing up for the premiere of his latest theatrical creation, which is, of course, about his stormy relationship with his mother and father. (David is also gay.) Meanwhile, Monica finds out she’s going to die but can at least do so in the arms of Michel (Patrick Bruel), a swarthy French doctor who’s been secretly in love with her for years. At the same time, Annabelle decides to pay a visit to her dad, stopping in Tel Aviv along the way and making love to a stranger during an air-raid warning, after which she falls pregnant.

There’s enough soap in this melodrama to clean the entire Western Wall, and Sthers’ directorial touch is about as subtle as all the letters the Rosenmerck family send to one another, reciting them out loud at will. (Ex. “I feel spring will never come. Like it’s a lost season, like the love I used to feel in my heart.”) There are also a few too many irregularities, such as: Why does hardly anyone in Israel seem to speak Hebrew? Why do the New York exteriors look an awful lot like Belgium? Why is the writing so bad? (Ex. “There ought to be a doctor for sorrow.”) What were all these people thinking?

At best, Holy Lands allows Caan, now 79, to do his thing, and he’s still enough of a badass to lend the film some charm. The friendship Harry strikes up with the rabbi is, corny as it seems, at least a bit lighthearted compared to the rest of the action. This includes a subplot involving David’s play and its trashing by a New York Times theater critic, prompting a scene where Arquette tracks down the latter in a restaurant, dumps water in his face and tells him, “Just don’t be mean.” Too late.

Production companies: PM, StudioCanal
Cast: James Caan, Tom Hollander, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Rosanna Arquette, Effrat Dor, Patrick Bruel
Director-screenwriter: Amanda Sthers, based on her novel
Les Terres saintes
Producers: Alain Pancrazi, Laurent Bacri
Executive producer: Bernard Bouix
Director of photography: Regis Blondeau
Production designers: Francoise Joset, Shahar Bar Adon
Costume designer: Deborah O’Hana
Editor: Nadia Ben Rachid
Composer: Gregoire Hetzel
Casting director: Bonnie Timmermann
Sales: StudioCanal

100 minutes