Set in the low-income, nondescript Parisian suburb of Sarcelles, this ponderous drama by first-time writer-director Karin Albou tracks the sexual awakening of gorgeous, French-Jewish Laura (Valette), a young philosophy student who lives with her devout sister, Mathilde (Zylberstein); Mathilde's husband, Ariel (Todeschini); and her mother (Sonia Tahar), an immigrant from Tunisia. Observing Jewish religious custom, but consumed by her late-night grapplings with Kant, Aristophanes and other cerebral Western thinkers, Laura—a woman for whom ideas are preferable to urges—is thrown for a loop when she falls for Djamel, an Algerian Muslim emigr. In a parallel subplot, Mathilde tries to satisfy Ariel's erotic needs without disobeying the Torah's marital edicts.
Opening with a sensual close-up of Laura's luxurious tresses and naked thigh before cutting to a riverbank where an Orthodox rite is underway, Albou defines her themes from the outset: the tension between flesh and reason, faith and secularism, law and personal freedom. With so much on its mind—a cross-cultural romance, female desire, the ugly politics of assimilation in contemporary France—it's disappointing that the film feels so remote and airy. This portrait of a young woman trying to chasten her body in order to bathe in the divine light of pure thought only threatens to be interesting, favoring turgid atmospherics and the grainy, dusky-hued cinematography of Laurent Brunet over plot or depth of character. La Petite Jrusalem, like Laura, has its head where its heart should be. (Opens Fri; Quad.) —Damon Smith