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Film review: A House in Jerusalem

by
31 May 2024

Stephen Brown reviews a film about a child and a house in Jerusalem

Rebecca (Miley Locke) and Rasha (Sheherazade Farrell) by the well in A House in Jerusalem

Rebecca (Miley Locke) and Rasha (Sheherazade Farrell) by the well in A House in Jerusalem

ONE of the words for time frequently used in the Greek New Testament is kairos. It is for those magic moments transcending clock time (chronos), providing divine glimpses of eternity for those with eyes to see.

A House In Jerusalem (Cert. 12A) pays serious attention to such an understanding. The Palestinian writer/director Muayad Alayan implants the idea into a well-trodden narrative: a child dealing with the loss of a parent. Twelve-year-old Rebecca Shapiro (Miley Locke) has survived a car crash in which her mother died. In a desperate attempt to find solace, she and her father, Michael (Johnny Harris), emigrate from England to the old family home in Jerusalem. Relatives tell them that the house (in the Valley of the Ghosts neighbourhood) was empty after the 1948 Arab-Israeli War.

It soon becomes apparent that the place was bought for a pittance after the violent uprooting of its Palestinian owners. From thereon, the traumatised Rebecca begins noticing sporadic signs of disturbance: a child’s drawing appears on a wall; an ornament smashes on the floor. Michael, understandably, believes that it is the work of his grieving daughter. We, the viewers, know that she didn’t do anything.

Rebecca discovers a well in the grounds. She fishes out an old-fashioned doll, which Michael throws away. He worries that his daughter is still “acting outside of herself”, but it is precisely this ecstatic feeling which gives her visions transcending normal time. Out of the well comes Rasha (Sheherazade Farrell), seeking her beloved doll. It transpires that she hid from gunmen who invaded this house, which was her home. Rasha is awaiting rescue by her parents, who, amid the chaos, fled without finding her.

It soon becomes clear that only Rebecca can see this other child. Both feel abandoned by loved ones. They are united by grief, and time present (now) and time past (1948) merge as they contemplate the future. Time stands still as we (rather than they) are being asked how past wrongs can be put right. Rasha and Rebecca see themselves only as sisters in adversity, two sides of a humanity in danger of for ever being polarised by contemporary political arrangements.

History may haunt our present day, but that doesn’t turn Rasha into a ghost. There is something about this film suggesting that a conspiracy of silence about past injustices has caused the very stones of this house to cry out in protest. Rasha is a place memory, a reminder (to quote Eliot’s “Burnt Norton”) that all time is eternally present. Muayad Alayan has described his film as the souls of two lonely girls joyfully meeting across time. Grief comes with certain benefits.

The fact that the film is set in Jerusalem, the holy city, is also significant. It was Jesus who wept over it, saying, “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.” But they are not from Rebecca and Rasha. A journey to Bethlehem precipitates a kairos moment, one that would have had audiences yearning for more. Unfortunately, it constitutes an implausible lapse in an otherwise convincing tale.

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