In Michelangelo Antonioni’s Red Desert, Richard Harris plays a wealthy man in dire need of a shake-up. He makes plans to leave to South America. Yet, on the verge of departure, he meets a married woman, played by Monica Vitti, for whom he feels an attraction that may end up changing his plans. A similar thing happens to the lead character of Elie Wajeman’s feature directorial debut Aliyah. Alex (Pio Marmai) is a 27-year-old Jewish low-level drug dealer who is also stuck in a life he needs to get out of. Unlike other cinematic representations of his chosen “profession,” there is no glamour in his dealing and, in any case, he’s not interested in that lifestyle anyways.
Besides his dealing, he has other, more personal reasons for wanting to start life anew – to get away from the memory of an ex-girlfriend who is about to get married and his freeloading older brother, who is constantly on his back needing to get him out of trouble. One night, he lends a ticket that may be his way out. He must raise enough money to become a restaurateur in Tel Aviv. Determined to do so, the whole film chronicles the remaining time he has to raise the cash and make the deadline. On the same night, however, something else happens. He meets the young and beautiful Jeanne (Adèle Haenel), whom he falls in love with and embarks in a relationship with. Will romance stand in his way?
Later on in the movie, she will ask him why he wants to leave Paris so badly. He replies that nobody asked him to stay. So, she asks him to stay. However, there is no urgency for romance in the film. Wajeman chooses for his film to be a slow-burner on purpose. One obvious reason for the sobering pace is for the spectator to experience the methodic, predictable, dull life that Alex wants to get away from. In order to do so, the film must not raise the level of excitement to a point where we might start to question his intentions. The gray, widescreen shots of Paris give an urban feeling of oppression to the visual landscape of Aliyah, but the cinematography too never tries to manipulate a viewer’s reception. Also, music is used sparingly.
Most of the dramatic tension arises from Alex’s relationship with his older brother Isaac (Cédric Kahn). It is he who poses the biggest threat to Alex, not only because he is a hopeless mess, but also because, while Alex constantly feels the need to help him no matter what, we feel that Isaac is manipulative, two-faced and selfish enough to stand in the way of his younger brother’s happiness.
Aliyah could have been a romantic melodrama, a gripping crime thriller – even a political movie about Jewish men returning to Israel. But it isn’t, it escapes such easy conventions. Instead, Wajeman seems to stay true to depicting the story of a guy in his mid-20s who seizes an opportunity to make something out of his life and will let nothing stand in his way. No more no less. – ★★★★
ALYAH || 2012, France || Drama || Directed by – Elie Wajeman / Produced by – Lola Gans / Written by – Gaelle Macé, Elie Wajeman / Cinematography – David Chizallet / Editing by – Francois Quiqueré / Starring – Pio Maramai, Adèle Haenel, Cédric Kahn / Running time: 88 mins.