Philadelphia Jewish Film Festival 2017: Shady Srour’s ‘Holy Air’

The almighty euro

From its opening moments, Shady Srour’s Holy Air is a wonderfully dark comedy: Lamia (Laëtitia Eïdo) urinates onto a pregnancy test in a car’s passenger seat; in the next scene, soon-to-be father Adam (Srour) jokingly drowns himself in the bathtub. This is definitely not your typical film about the Nazareth pilgrimage.

Laëtitia Eïdo's Lamia and Shady Srour's Adam prepare for some big changes. (Photo courtesy of the Philadelphia Jewish Film Festival.)

Shortly after learning about his wife’s pregnancy, Adam learns his father is dying of cancer. Determined to provide for his family, Adam decides to start selling bottled air from the top of Holy Mount Precipice, an idea that comes to him while getting stoned there in his car. Successful at first, it becomes clear that he cannot continue doing business unless everyone in town gets their cut of the profits.

The film’s trailer paints a portrait of Nazareth as a town full of get-rich-quick schemes, which it certainly delivers, but also conveys a much deeper understanding of the complex relations between various religious, ethnic, and political groups in Israel.

Crisis of faith and funds

Subtle and not-so-subtle references to the power dynamics between Arabs and Israelis are woven throughout the film, but perhaps more interesting is the oft-overlooked perspective of the Arab Christian, typified by Adam’s character. As a religious minority within Israel’s Arab ethnic minority, Adam exists on society’s margins. That said, his lack of allegiance to any one group also gives him agency to work between them.

While the film never addresses this directly, Adam seems to be experiencing a perpetual crisis of faith: living in one of his religion’s most revered sites, yet becoming part of the tourist trade that commercializes the holy pilgrimage. One scene that particularly supports this notion features Adam cornering a Catholic priest turned tour guide inside a confessional booth. There he proposes a business arrangement, knowing it is the only time he is guaranteed the priest’s attention.

The bleakest critique of Israel’s current sociopolitical situation comes from Lamia. In the middle of an anxiety attack, she declares, “I no longer care. I’ve had enough of Nazareth. Of Jews and Arabs, of Arabs and Arabs, of Christians and Muslims. The Middle East is burning. There is no future.”

The film goes on to offer a somewhat contradictory resolution by showing one cause under which Jews, Christians, and Arabs can all unite: the almighty euro.

Stylistically, this film is impeccably well packaged, with static camera shots elegantly composed to transform dusty tourist markets, traffic jams, and hospital rooms into beautiful pictures. The laughs are never forced, and the film's dry wit is always biting.

I was impressed to find a writer/director who can also act. Too often one or more of these triple-billed positions are cast for reasons of vanity (or money), but Srour proves to be the exception to this rule. Credit is also due to Eïdo for using every minute onscreen to express an incredible range of emotion. The couple’s relationship feels believable; while we see it through Adam’s eyes, it is mainly conveyed through Eïdo’s magnificent performance, gravitating seamlessly between mania and vulnerability. Tarik Kopty, as Adam’s father, is also strong in this supporting role, genuinely showing the joys and sorrows of a man whose lifespan is numbered in days. 

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