Not Quite Holy

[This first appeared at The Jagged Word on June 1.]

I can’t believe that I’ve been writing these for a year! Thanks to The Jagged Word for the opportunity to watch more movies and write down whatever I think about when I watch them. I don’t know if any of it is worth anything but, at the very least, I hope you’ve discovered some good movies.

In spite of some controversy stirred up by this film, I had never heard of Holy Air until I came across it randomly on Amazon (free for Prime users). The synopsis begins, “Adam and Lamia are a Christian Arab couple from Nazareth – members of a vanishing minority in the Holy Land.” and I was in. But if you go by the synopsis, you might, like me, start to wonder after 15 minutes or so what you’re actually watching. Adam and Lamia are not what you’d call observant Christians. In this, they parallel many (most?) American Christians who are in their 20s or 30s and children of observant Christians. Adam’s discussion with his parents at the Christmas dinner table probably sounds a lot like many conversations around holiday dinner tables in the United States.

Everything you might expect from a movie that takes place in Israel is present: the conflict between religious and ethnic groups, the religious tourism, the clashes of values. But Holy Air doesn’t dwell on any of those. Instead, they make up the back-drop of the family story (sometimes literally and humorously, as when the pope’s banner is unfurled behind Adam’s head). And this, I think, is part of the brilliance of the film: to tell a story embedded in a particular culture and place that is nonetheless a universal story. You learn what it means to live in an unfamiliar—at least, to me—environment, but you recognize the struggles and difficult decisions as human ones.

Adam is simply trying to provide for his wife and unborn child, but he’s unhappy in his current job, selling insurance policies. His co-worker, Mahmoud, yells at him that he has brought in the Muslim customers, but Adam hasn’t done his part bringing in the Christian ones—primarily because the Christians have largely left Nazareth.

Adam’s entrepreneurial ambitions push him to consider what he can do on his own, such as toilet paper covered in English and Arabic jokes. His wife is, however, less than confident about that particular venture. It’s not until he decides to take a marijuana-induced nap in his car outside a church that he discovers his next customer base. As a monk tour guide leads a group of Christians down the road, he dramatically recounts how the people of Nazareth were going to throw Jesus from the cliff visible opposite them. So Adam decides to bottle the air of “Mount Precipice” and sell it as experiential memorabilia to the Christian tourists.

I happen to hate this kind of spiritual merchandising and gimmickry, but I always felt sympathetic to Adam during the film. He’s cynical and depressed, but still trying as hard as he can to do what’s good for his family. Central to this is Lamia’s breakdown after seeing pictures of starving children. In the light of so much violence and hatred and now without Adam’s steady job, who are they to bring another child into the world?

They seriously consider abortion, even going to a Jewish hospital in Tel Aviv—a scene that takes on its own comic tones. One of the women on the panel to decide whether they can have the abortion says she approves it, but only because Adam and Lamia are Arabs and not Jews, while the other woman argues against it because the abortion doesn’t seem to be “necessary.” It becomes a cultural clash, rather than a moral one. But as both the arguing women leave, Adam and Lamia seem to have made up their minds, a decision that remains unknown until the end of the film.

The clash of cultures and values that appears in that scene and throughout the film seems to be overcome as Adam convinces the monk, his Jewish friend, and his Muslim former partner to get a bishop, a rabbi, and an Arab gangster(?) to back his plans to sell the air of Mount Precipice as a unifying spiritual experience for the occasion of the pope’s visit.

In spite of the capitalism that brings together Jews, Muslims, and Christians, the film isn’t, finally, very optimistic about the hopes for cultural and religious reconciliation. Just as Adam is holding his multi-religious press conference, a jet flies over, occasioning an air raid siren, scattering the people, and knocking over the bottles, while Adam stands in front of a cross, unmoving.

But even while it’s not generally optimistic, the final scene presents an optimism of the specific. Perhaps, Holy Air seems to say, there will not be a widespread end to the millennia-long disputes over that particular piece of land. But even as the disputes and violence continue, life goes on in local and particular and familial ways. And in that there may still yet be some hope.

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