Film Review: ‘Holy Air’ in the Holy Land

“I like it that they laugh at the film, but with that laugh, there’s a touch of empathy,” said Shady Srour, the writer/director/star of the new comedy/drama Holy Air, which just opened in theaters throughout Israel. “It’s not a classic comedy, but it has humor and parody.”

Srour was interviewed along with his co-star, the French actress, Laëtitia Eïdo, at the recently concluded 34th Haifa International Film Festival, where Eïdo had a role in Sameh Zoabi’s Tel Aviv on Fire, which won the competition for Best Israeli Feature Film, and was a judge for the Golden Anchor Competition. Television audiences will also recognize Eïdo as Dr. Shirin on Fauda, one of the most complex characters on that popular drama.

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Holy Air is an engaging and charming comedy with dramatic overtones and it isn’t quite like anything you’ve seen before. Srour and Eïdo play Adam and Lamia, a husband and wife, two Christian Arabs living in Nazareth. Adam is trying to find himself and make a living, and is not exactly ready when his wife tells him he is about to become a father. In order to make ends meet, he starts selling bottles of air from Mount Precipice to tourists, which seems to solve all his problems – until it doesn’t. Lamia is an outspoken social worker who speaks frankly and publicly about women’s sexual issues. Both have master’s degrees and both wonder whether there is a future for them in Israel.

The film, which is full of small but telling details and is clearly the work of a born storyteller, makes audiences laugh as it shatters stereotypes about Arabs in Israel. At times, it seems as if Srour has managed to transplant Woody Allen’s spirit to the Galilee. Adam is a man so trapped by circumstances and his own temperament that his default position is to revel in the absurdity of life. He’s an instinctive salesman with a wry comic sensibility and as much as he knows he can’t raise a family on air, he seems determined to try.
Eïdo, with her delicate beauty and sensuality, at times seems like a Middle Eastern Audrey Hepburn (with a touch of a Modigliani painting), and her grace and playfulness works well opposite Adam’s stubbornness and inability to face reality.
Srour said the humor came naturally to him.

“I have it in my blood.”

It’s hard not to find some autobiography in a film he worked on for 11 years. Like Adam, he was raised in a Christian family in Nazareth, although his parents identified more with Communism than with the church.

Adam’s story, he said, “has all different layers, political, religious and existential. It was a fight to make the characters rounded, to touch the human essence with characters who are stuck within all these conflicts.”

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Although his parents hoped he would become a doctor or a lawyer, he chose acting instead, but found that he could only get cast as a Russian or an Argentinian. Teaching at the Open University to make a living, he dreamed of the day when he would be able to make his own film.

Part of what took so long was finding the perfect actress to bring Lamia to life on screen, and he found her in Eïdo. Originally, he saw a photo of Eïdo, who was born and raised in the south of France, to a Lebanese mother and a French father, and ed her via Facebook, long before she was cast in Fauda. She was not fluent in Arabic, but this did not dissuade either of them. Srour hired a dialogue coach, and she began spending hours a day learning how to speak Arabic with a Nazarene accent.

Eïdo, who said she grew up in a very diverse area and did not face discrimination due to her Lebanese ancestry, saw Lamia as a character whom she could easily relate to.

“She is creative and positive, very outspoken about the need for sexual education for women, who wants to move away from this madness and create life… bringing light and hope even if the situation seems dark.”

While Eïdo is now recognized all over the world from Fauda, something she never expected, both she and Srour are gratified at the international success of Holy Air. It won the FIPRESCI Prize for Best First Israeli First Film at the Jerusalem Film Festival in 2017 and has played at festivals and in theaters all over the world, including the Tribeca Film Festival in New York. The film can be streamed on Amazon Prime (although not in Israel) and the Los Angeles Times praised it as “a small, canny gem from a fractured land.”

Both are at work on a number of new projects, including, for Eïdo, a love story, and but both agreed that Holy Air was a unique project for them.

“There is magic in the film that everyone can relate to,” said Srour.

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