Here’s a little quiz: Suppose a movie titled “Aliyah” came out; what would you expect to be its main theme? The answer would probably depend on the time period.
In the 1920s and ’30s, “Aliyah” would have been about Diaspora Jews settling in Palestine, where they became bronzed pioneers transforming the Hula swamps into fertile farmland.
In the 1950s, the film might have been about Holocaust survivors coming to the newly established Israel, where they built new lives after the horrors of the past.
In 2013, “Aliyah” is about the interior struggles of a French-Jewish drug pusher who thinks he might make something of his life by joining his cousin in opening a restaurant in Tel Aviv.
There are no heroes or heroics in the contemporary “Aliyah,” and despite the risky occupation of Alex Raphaelson as a retail hashish dealer, there are no shootouts or car chases.
Alex and his circle of relatives represent a different breed of Jews, neither shtetl dwellers nor doctors or bankers, and they live in a shabby working-class district of Paris, worlds removed from the Louvre and the Champs-Élysées.
In addition to his occupational hazards, Alex, portrayed by the rising French actor Pio Marmai, has other problems.
Foremost is his older brother Isaac, forever hitting up Alex for “loans” to pay off unnamed underworld characters, who will otherwise carve up the hapless Isaac.
Furthermore, Alex has just been dumped by Esther, a Hebrew teacher at a local religious school, who has become engaged to a more stable guy.
When a cousin, who had earlier left Paris to serve in the Israeli army, talks of his plans to open a trendy restaurant on the Tel Aviv waterfront, Alex announces that he wants in on the deal and, to everyone’s surprise, will make aliyah and live in Israel.
That, according to the film, is not as easy as in decades past, when any Jew was automatically welcomed.
Now a shaliach (emissary) tells a group of applicants that they must learn Hebrew, serve in the army if they are of military age, have no criminal record and prove they are indeed Jewish.
This transformation of a rather indifferent Jew into a worthy future citizen of the Jewish state could have been played for broad laughs (as part of the test, Alex is asked to name some of the Jewish holidays), but that is not the style of the movie or of its director, Elie Wajeman.
Despite the tests and the unanimous opinion of his drug trade colleagues and relatives that he must be out of his mind (one warns that “a lot of Jews together can be a drag”), Alex perseveres.
He digs into his family background to prove that he’s Jewish, dutifully takes Hebrew lessons and must pull off one final really big job to raise money for his partnership share in the Tel Aviv restaurant.
The biggest complication, though, is a new relationship with Jeanne, the only major non-Jewish character in the film. She is smart enough to guess Alex’s “profession” and see through his hang-ups, but can’t help falling madly in love with him. “I like clumsy guys,” she explains. “They move me.”
The film ends in Tel Aviv as Alex gets acquainted with a cross-section of his new hometown in an extended bus ride.
In keeping with the film’s nonjudgmental tone, it doesn’t reveal whether Alex adjusts to his new country, marries a nice Israeli girl and conquers the demons and hang-ups within him.
Most published reviews of “Aliyah” have ranged from positive to outright enthusiastic, with major critics — as well as this reviewer — taken by the psychological perceptiveness and atmosphere of the film.
A number of bloggers have been less supportive, citing their disappointment with the lack of high-octane action, a generally somber tone and the incessant cigarette smoking.
Whatever the view, the film draws great strength from its excellent young cast. Complementing the dark and handsome Marmai are auteur Cédric Kahn as the pathetic Isaac, and Adele Haenel as the perceptive and ardent Jeanne.
“Aliyah” is in French and Hebrew, with English subtitles. It continues at Laemmle’s Music Hall in Beverly Hills through July 4.