Movie Review: A colorful city myopically seen via “A Tramway in Jerusalem”

A tram on Jersulem’s Red Line makes its way from east to west, through an important city of many religions and cultures, revealing itself through the passengers who get on at various stops at many different times of day.

But does “A Tramway in Jerusalem” really manage that? And forget the idea that Amos Gitai’s spotty anthology film is a travelogue or “Visit the Holy Land” tourist advert. The myopia of seeing the city, glimpsed here and there, via a clean, modern and safe train is never less than sterile.

The occasional hints of friction, embittered Palestinians either grousing “the Jewish state” or rapping “Your bullets don’t scare us,” don’t really tell “the story” or even “a story.”

A lonely Catholic priest (Pippo Delbono) drones on incantations and homilies with a touch of madness about them. And the fact that he’s going on in Italian about adultery and Jesus saying “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone” sitting next to a woman (Yuval Scharf) who’s just guiltily dished to a friend about the affair she’s having with a married sugar daddy would be funnier if we thought she understood Italian.

It can’t have been the intention of veteran director and co-writer Amos Gitai (“Kedma,” “Berlin-Jerusalem”) to serve up a collection of “types,” but at least they’re not broad enough to label “stereotypes.” Usually.

Sure, a yenta (Hana Laslo) nags her 30something son about getting married and giving her grandchildren, joking with and engaging a Yeshiva student and anybody else there in her case. A reporter tries to interview the new European football coach who’s just taken over Beitar Jerusalem and cannot get a word in edgewise as his boorish, cheerleading Israeli assistant breathlessly interrupts and answers for him, the train’s creeper of a security guard (Liron Levo) harasses attractive women, and at the behest of a Jewish Israeli “Karen,” profiles and assaults a Palestinian man who has had the temerity to stand next to her with a bouquet of store-bought flowers.

Golly, get my travel agent on the phone.

It’s a movie of music — a singer’s untranslated aria opens our vignettes, an Orthodox man serenades a traincar with his jumbush (Cümbüş), a mandolin/banjo hybrid common in the region, a Yeshiva class sings, and later a Palestinian rapper raps.

But the monologues and dialogues are supposed to carry it. The famous French actor Mathieu Amalric (“The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” “Quantum of Solace”) is the most accessible “See this ride/this city through his eyes” character, a tourist with his tween son (Elias Amalric), absorbing the jumbush playing singer’s song, half-recoiling from two very pushy locals who get smilingly defensive about anything sound like a criticism of “The Jewish State.”

He reads (in French) from a long letter, written in 1850, by the French writer Flaubert, relating his experiences traveling in The Holy Land long ago. Sometimes flattering, sometimes profane, Flaubert’s descriptions, the father illustrates to his son, still resonate.

“Jerusalem feels like a fortified mass grave.”

You find yourself wishing, as a non-Israeli watching this, that Gitai had built the movie around these two rather than limiting them to two scenes. The stranger-in-a-strange-land getting this world explained to him is an old trope, but it works.

Quarreling couples and parting lovers (he’s a soldier going on duty for a stretch), the “Tramway” sees all, but reveals little. I found this anthology-as-collection-of-types indulgent and annoying, not a complete waste of time but an infuriating one.

MPAA Rating: unrated, adult conversations, profanity

Cast: Mathieu Amalric, Achinoam Nini, Mustafa Mazi, Hana Laslo, Liron Levo, Pippo Delbono

Credits: Directed by Amos Gitai, script by Amos Gitai and Marie-Jose Sanselme. A Film Movement release.

Running time: 1:34

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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