Grade: B-

Eitan Gorlin’s ironically-titled “The Holy Land” is a film that depicts a side of life in Israel that’s rarely glimpsed on screen, and fascinating as a result: the seedy secular demimonde of bars and brothels, in which Palestinian troublemakers and Jewish extremists easily rub shoulders as they hoist their drinks. It’s a pity that the scenario Gorlin’s chosen to dramatize against this backdrop isn’t entirely worthy of it, and that the denouement he’s fashioned is so contrived.

The film begins as yeshiva student Mendy (Oren Rehany), the son of a rigorously orthodox couple in Tel Aviv, daydreams his way through his classes to such an extent that his teacher suggests an extreme cure–that he go off to a brothel and, through a single sexual experience, rid himself of temptation. When Mendy takes this advice to heart, however, he finds himself swooning over a young prostitute, Russian emigre Sacha (Tchelet Semel), a vivacious girl who ultimately hopes to get to America; and through her he also becomes acquainted with Mike (Saul Stein), the American-born proprietor of a Jerusalem bar that’s home to suspicious guys of every ethnic background and occupation. Mendy is soon working at Mike’s place while trying to win Sacha. Among the regular customers he quickly becomes acquainted with are Razi (Albert Illooze), an Arab smuggler, and The Exterminator (Arie Moskuna), a Jewish settler who’s never without his M-16 and his strong opinions. Motives become increasingly deceptive as the interrelationships among the characters develop. Is Sacha really falling for Menny, or merely interested in his passport (his mother is American-born, which means he can travel there without difficulty–and take her along)? Are Mike and Razi truly friendly toward him, or does their interest in him arise from the fact that an Orthodox Jew can easily pass through army checkpoints with contraband? The situation is further muddied when Menny’s rabbinical teacher tracks him down and threatens to inform his family about his transgressions.

What’s most interesting about “The Holy Land” is the background Gorlin draws so convincingly, of a polyglot group of fringe-dwellers engaged in all sorts of activities on the other side of law and conventional morality. As he cranks up the plot, however, the picture grows more and more woozy, and by the time an ironically twisted ending rolls around (all too abruptly, one might add), it’s coming apart at the seams. The acting is quite good–Rehany is suitably innocent, Semel winningly coquettish, Stein and Moskuna appropriately over-the-top and Illouze slightly sinister–but their excellence can’t entirely salvage a script that never quite finds its bearings.

That may, of course, be the point: Menny never gets on an even keel, either. But it makes for a film which, while intriguing, is also more than a little frustrating. If you’re willing to accept the raggedness, however, “The Holy Land” is certainly a picture that will take you off the beaten path.