Elie Wajeman’s Aliyah is a film built on contrasts, contradictions even; it’s a film about a man making his return to the promised land, without having the spiritual fervor demanded of those taking on such journeys. It’s also a story about craving a new beginning in a place usually reserved for those who have been there forever.
Pio Marmaï stars as Alex Raphaelson, a small time drug dealer who is trying hard to find a better way of life that will forever take him out of Paris’ 19th arrondissement. Instead of selling and distributing hard drugs, Alex deals in hashish, which has perpetuated his mediocrity even in terms of the illegal business.
Alex’s life is made the more complicated by his older brother Isaac (played by filmmaker Cédric Kahn) who comes to him whenever he needs to borrow money, which he never returns. The sensitive Alex has a hard time saying no to his troubled brother and begins to harbor resentment and self-hatred.
His life gets a sudden turn for the better when the possibility of a new beginning shows up in Israel. Alex’s cousin Nathan (David Geselson) tells him he’s looking for investors to open a restaurant in Tel Aviv, all he would have to do is come up with the money to invest and reconnect to his Jewish roots in order to apply for “aliyah”, the term used for Jews who decide to migrate back to Israel.
Alex sees the possibility of migrating as his only option to end the cycle with his brother and maybe even start a family of his own (through very economical resources, the director makes us gather that Alex didn’t grow up in a happy or particularly household). At first glance, because of its moody cinematography and gritty subject matter, Aliyah fools us into believing it will be something like James Gray’s We Own the Night or Michael Mann’s Collateral, violent thrillers in which the underworld takes the most out of their protagonists. However, Aliyah is more meditative, in a way similar to Jacques Audiard’s The Beat That My Heart Skipped, in which men led into lives of crime are pulled out by their very need to create.
We follow Alex’s process as he tries to accomplish his aliyah through Hebrew lessons imparted by his ex-girlfriend Esther (Sarah Le Picard) who seems to develop new feelings for him, as he falls for another student, the young Jeanne (Adèle Haenel), but we know that Alex has a mission where this two women might not fit in and the director allows these small touches to make the film even richer. Added to this, we see Isaac constantly coming back for money, leading the younger brother to start dealing in cocaine in order to make enough money to help his brother and save enough for the restaurant, point at which it becomes obvious that Alex needs to stay away from the person he might love the most on earth.
Wajeman turns what could’ve been a regular thriller, into a wonderful character study of such intimacy and raw power that makes it feel more original and urgent than any similarly themed movies. The director makes wonderful choices that feel surprising but make the story even more poignant, like the fact that the most violent moments in the film come from words and not punches or bullets. What do you mean, a drug dealer movie with no shootouts and murders? Exactly. Wajeman trusts that the audience will be more interested in learning out who Alex is than in being seduced by sensationalist plot twists.
A big part of the film’s success is owed of course to Pio Marmaï, who gives a treasure of a performance that should land him more parts in coming years. His Alex is a fortress of a man, who seems impossible to penetrate but at the same time reveals too much with his eyes. The actor who looks like a cross between Alain Delon (the angular, beautiful features) and Mark Ruffalo (the everyman qualities) beautifully embodies the unique dynamics of what it means to belong to a group you never really expected to belong to. With Aliyah we find ourselves watching poignant cinema that might get lost because of its low key qualities.
The Film Movement company has done a great job in bringing this film to home media. The DVD transfer is crisp and looks great and since the movie doesn’t have an especially complex sound mix, it sounds just about right in larger home theaters as well as in a smaller player using headphones. Bonus features include trailers for other Film Movement selections and a wonderful short film titled On the Road to Tel Aviv in which a young woman becomes a scapegoat for intolerance.