Laura is a young Orthodox woman torn between her religious upbringing and the intellectual and physical pleasures of the secular world. Karin Albou’s first narrative feature (her documentary My Country Left Me played SFJFF in 1998) premiered in Cannes to critical acclaim and a bit of a stir because of the protagonist’s interest in a Muslim man and the film’s unblinking presentation of French anti-Semitism. Set in the Paris suburb of Sarcelles, "La Petite Jerusalem" is the nickname for Laura’s low-income neighborhood, which has a substantial number of Jewish residents, many of them Mizrahi immigrants. Eighteenyear- old Laura (Fanny Valette), a French-born university student, lives there with her tight-knit Tunisian Jewish family and is closest to her sister Mathilde, played by festival favorite Elsa Zylberstein (Mina Tannenbaum, SFJFF 1994; Man Is Woman, SFJFF 1999; Louba’s Ghosts, SFJFF 2001).
Laura shuns her brother-in-law Ariel’s religiosity and instead embraces her studies in Kantian philosophy, even adopting Kant’s daily ritual walk. When her work as a custodian at a local high school brings her into contact with Djamel, an Algerian Muslim, a passionate romance ignites and spreads across their cultures like straw roofs on fire. Meanwhile, Mathilde discovers that her husband’s religion has not insulated him from infidelity. She turns to her mikvah maven who counsels her that Jewish law includes sexual pleasure within marriage and also offers some frank advice, which Mathilde later puts to very good use.
La Petite Jerusalem is a passionate drama and an intelligent look at a young woman finding her spiritual, sexual and intellectual true north.