Eighteen-year old Laura (Fanny Valette) lives with her widowed mother (Sonia Tahar), her older sister Mathilde (Elsa Zylberstein), Mathilde's husband Ariel (Bruno Todeschini), and their four small children. The family resides in a low-income complex in the Paris suburb of Sarcelles, which has been nicknamed "Little Jerusalem" due to the large number of Jews living there.
Faith is very much at the center of this Sephardic Orthodox household, especially for Mathilde and Ariel. Laura is desperately trying to maintain her faith in tandem with her love of philosophy. She is taking university classes and is a serious student of Kant, who devoted himself to the life of the mind. She has picked up one of his disciplines walking every day at the same time along the same route.
Laura's mother, who married young in Tunisia, is upset that her younger daughter has no interest in dating. Mathilde and Ariel have noticed that Laura is not as involved as she used to be in their Sabbath rituals or synagogue activities. Everyone is shocked when they learn that she has an interest in Djamel (Hedi Tillette de Clermont-Tonnerre) who works with her on a cleaning crew at a nearby school. He is an Algerian-Muslim émigré who was a journalist back home. Although Laura believes that passion is an illusion that deeply restricts one's autonomy and freedom, she discovers that Djamel's obsession with her has brought to the surface sexual desires she had tried to repress.
Writer and director Karin Albou has fashioned an engrossing film about Judaism, faith, and sexuality. While this could have been done clumsily, it comes across with a subtlety and grace that honors all the characters as they struggle with their yearnings. Laura rebels against the strictures of Orthodoxy and the patriarchal rules of Ariel, who sees himself as her father. Meanwhile, he has broken his dutiful wife's heart by having an affair. At a ritual bath area, Mathilde breaks down and a woman counselor (Aurore Clement) helps her to see that her fear of sexual pleasure within marriage is not kosher. Thanks to her ability to refocus her faith, Mathilde finds a way back to her husband. Laura is not so fortunate: reason does not provide a life-jacket when she desperately needs one.
The mind/body splits within these two young women is mirrored in tensions within the community: anti-Semitism rears its ugly head when the synagogue is torched and Ariel is beaten up by some ruffians. The crux of La Petite Jerusalem is the sensitive and appealing ways in which Karin Albou manages to handle the complicated dynamics of Orthodox faith and the velocities of sexual desire without slighting or trivializing either. Issues around sexuality continue to cause divisions within Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. It is a treat to see a serious movie on this subject; the added value is wonderful and persuasive performances by Fanny Valette and Elsa Zylberstein.
Special Features included on this DVD are an interview with write /director Karin Albou; stills gallery and trailer.