Film Review: Holy Air

An original, sad and comic view of Christian Arab subculture and the beleaguered life of an economically strapped husband/son trying to make a fortune in Nazareth by selling “bottled” air.
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Set in the Christian Arab community of Nazareth, Israel, Holy Air is an oddly appealing  film that explores a minority-within-a-minority subculture where corruption is everywhere, informing the interplay of politics, religion, economics, gender and ethnic-identity conflicts. By turns sad and comic, subtle and not-so-subtle, the movie showcases triple-threat talent Shady Srour, who wrote, directed and stars as the feckless, pot-smoking Adam, who abruptly walks out on his business partner (it’s never entirely clear what business they’re in) to test his skills in the quirky entrepreneurial arena.

The immediate problem is that he needs some serious money. His wife Lamina (Laëtitia Eïdo) is pregnant and his father George (Tarek Copty, in a poignant performance) is terminally ill. When Adam’s first idea, toilet paper scrawled with motivational messages, goes nowhere quickly, he comes up with a second plan: “bottling” the land’s holy air for souvenir-lusting tourists. Evidently the sale of holy water is a thriving enterprise in this neck of the woods. (Satire cannot keep up with reality.)

But launching a business is no easy feat in a morally challenged region where kickbacks are the name of the game. Even in the confessional, Adam and the priest talk quid-pro-quo deals. Adam also has to reckon with Muslim thugs running a protection racket and Israeli politicians who want a piece of the action too.

Adam is an extraordinary creation, a multilingual figure who straddles the line between con-man and believer; schmuck and wily operator who hawks his product as a spiritual package that embodies tranquility, love, purity, unity and peace—all this for one euro. Overhead, war planes fly by, sirens howling. The juxtaposition is obvious, yet underscores the society’s cruel absurdity.

At the same time, pathos lies just beneath the surface, most pointedly in the fading, frail George, who knows he’s on the cusp of death; and so does Adam, who loves his father. In a particularly touching scene, Adam is shaving off his dad’s mustache, which he has worn for decades. A clean, hairless face is necessary for the oxygen mask George now needs. Yet even as he’s dying, there’s room for comedy. Every time George moves in the hospital bed, it squeaks. To solve the problem, Adam, Lamina and George’s wife (Dalia Okal) strip the bed and spread cooking oil across the faulty springs; problem solved. George’s triumphant smile is as droll as it is tragic.

Yet life goes on, and as if to prove the point, Lamina is pregnant. Regrettably, this subplot, dealing with her pregnancy and by extension reproductive rights, feels tacked on, though arguably the topic is part and parcel of a complex social tapestry that’s evolving even as it disintegrates.

It might feel more organic if Lamina were a relatable character instead of a self-serving, cocky feminist who is oblivious to anyone else’s feelings or needs. Throughout, she vacillates between desperately desiring a child and then wanting to abort once she’s pregnant. Her capricious self-indulgence is amply portrayed in the opening sequence, where sitting alongside Adam in their car, she suddenly decides she must find out at that moment if she’s pregnant, abruptly pulling down her panties, placing a cup between her legs and urinating into it. Adam is comically embarrassed, while she is purportedly forward-thinking and delightful. In fact, she’s just irritating and coarse.

Still, the politics of reproduction is complicated, especially in that part of the world, and Srour handles it with nuance. In Lamina’s let’s-have-an-abortion mode, she heads off with Adam in tow to Tel Aviv for the procedure, her presence provoking the two Israeli women doctors into a debate on abortion. The more progressive-minded physician who encourages Lamina to proceed (unlike the other M.D. urging Lamina to reconsider) is at bottom concerned with the large number of children born to Arabs, thus resulting in a country overrun with potential enemies. Her views express the marriage of feminist politics and self-protective social engineering. The scene ends with Adam and Lamina making out while the two medical professionals bicker away.

Holy Air is flawed, but on balance it’s a winner. Through a jaundiced and affectionate lens, Srour captures a fractured universe in all its contradictions. Cinematographer Daniel Miller’s close-ups and wide-angle shots evoking respectively intimate exchanges and gridlocked street scenes are an added bonus and Habib Shadah’s jaunty yet elegiac score melds perfectly with the unfolding narrative.

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