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Posted on Oct 9, 2014 |

Review: Jerusalem

Review: Jerusalem

jerusalem cover

It’s easy to see why Jerusalem, which opens Friday at the Omnimax Theater at Cincinnati’s Museum Center, just won international awards for best film and best cinematography.


The filming is breathtaking. The gigantic, half-dome screen makes the aerial photography truly heart-stopping while allowing the ground-level shots (winding through narrow streets and markets) to surround the viewer.


Typical for IMAX/Omnimax films, yes. But the film’s subject makes it more than a cinematic triumph. It makes going to Jerusalem feel like actually going to Jerusalem. And you’ll see things you can never see with your own eyes, particularly a “fly-over” of the rock formations at the heart of the famous Muslim Dome of the Rock, forbidden to Christians and Jews and only visible to Muslims through a metal fence. The footage of festivals, worship services, geographic features, and architecture is worth the price of admittance.

But what about the film itself? After all, it’s no mean feat for any film company to tell a story about a city sacred to three religions, often openly hostile to each other, without antagonizing one or all of them. And the film’s sponsor, National Geographic, is aggressively secular. How do they do at reaching religious viewers?

(Full disclosure: I saw the film at no cost as part of a group of “faith leaders” invited to evaluate it for area Christians, Jews, and Muslims.)


The answer is: Pretty well. The look into the Old City of Jerusalem is framed by a brief look into the lives of three teen girls, one Muslim, one Christian, and one Jewish. The three religions, we are told, each has its own Jerusalem, and as representatives of them, the girls show you different sites important to them, their families, and their faiths.


Choosing young women as guides proved to be a good way to humanize the three groups — they’re attractive, they’re sympathetic, and they’re non-threatening. They invite the viewer to experience their lives, while keeping men (possibly militant and/or easier to view as political) at a distance. Men are seen in the background as relatives, or as participants in large festivals or worship events, or as the impartial and disembodied voice of narrator Benedict Cumberbatch.


The religious and historic information is, as one would expect, vastly simplified. The film goes a little into a the bewildering sea of Christian groups with a presence in Jerusalem, and not at all into the different types of Muslims and Jews there (although many identifiable groups are shown in the footage). Some historical places are noted without comment, some are not identified (such as what appear to be mummy cases from “Jerusalem’s earliest inhabitants” who are not named) and some are explained in ways that make no sense (such as the rock in the Dome of the Rock, which the film says was found under a garbage dump by a caliph — which is, to put it kindly, highly debatable).


The most obvious example of this is the very beginning of the film, which claims that Jerusalem is situated on land sacred to the ancient Jebusites, “who worshipped Shalem, the god of the setting sun” on some rocks, and that these rocks are the very rocks now covered by the Dome of the Rock. No one would dispute that the crop of bedrock (also called the Foundation Stone and claimed by the Jews as well as by Christians) is the site of the original Temple. But its connection with the Jebusites, the lynchpin of the film’s narrative, is far from certain.


On the other hand, the film doesn’t shy away from history that not everyone finds pleasant. When the caliph mentioned above came to the Temple Mount, the film says, it was as a “conquerer” of a “thoroughly Christian city.” That simple statement is a refreshing change from documentaries that try to turn the complex history of one of the world’s most fought-over city into a simplistic story of “good” and “bad” armies, peoples, and religions.


The script is written even-handedly enough that viewers from each of the three religions will probably come away feeling that “their” Jerusalem is the star, while “those other groups” come across as interesting, if misguided, people with interesting and colorful, if misguided, ways. According to the film’s website, Jerusalem isn’t meant to be political but “passionately committed to promoting co-existence between the three Abrahamic faiths on an unprecedented scale” — a goal that can be viewed as either extremely idealistic or extremely political, depending on one’s mindset.


Jerusalem skirts that question, trying (and largely succeeding) to be all things to all people. My husband noted that even avowed secularists will probably find their worldview reflected in the film.


Remember that opening remark about the Jebusites? It’s possible, he said, to view the film as a look at three modern-day holdouts from Jebusite days — after all these millennia, right back where they started and worshipping a rock.


So you can bring your homeschool co-op and your militant atheist neighbor without antagonizing either one. Jerusalem does what it sets out to do, taking viewers on a thrilling and unforgettable trip to a tiny city holy to half the world’s inhabitants. It accomplishes the National Geographic Society’s noblest aim: to reveal the wonders of the world to its inhabitants. And, yes, it gives Christians, Jews, and Muslims a glimpse into each other’s faiths and lives.


Note: If you’ve never been to an Omnimax film, don’t be surprised if you are dizzy or have to close your eyes. Omnimax films are not three-dimensional, but the giant curved screen gives the impression of three dimensions. The huge imagery, combined with swift changes in camera angles or aerial drops, is part of what makes you feel as if you’re really in Jerusalem. But it can also be disorienting.


Jerusalem opens Oct. 10th and will play until February; after that it will remain in the Museum Center’s library and available for private showings for a year. For times and prices or to purchase tickets see the Cincinnati Museum Center website.


An “Educator toolkit” is available to download from that site; its contents are not reviewed.


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