Gritty Aliyah plays ironically on the meaning of the Hebrew word for “to ascend” that refers to Israel’s Law of Return: absorb any Jew from the Diaspora. This is a refreshing portrait—mostly free of idealism, religion, and stereotypes—of how a troubled, secular young Parisian struggles with that difficult window of opportunity to change his life.
A 27-year-old womanizer, Alex Raphaelson (roguishly handsome Pio Marmaï) keeps giving into his best friend, Mathias (Guillaume Gouix), to help him deal drugs around apartments and cafés though Alex gives up a share of his profits to his shaky, even more ne’er-do-well and demanding brother Isaac (played scarily by director Elie Wajeman’s film school teacher, Cédric Kahn, director of 2004’s Red Lights).
Though a black sheep in his extended family, Alex gets pulled into an aunt’s dinner that he shrugs off as “the call of the gefilte fish.” It’s held in honor of his cousin Nathan’s visit from Israel. The emigrant offers Alex a new career as a partner at his planned Tel Aviv restaurant overlooking the bright sunny Mediterranean. Alex catches up, too, with his ex-girlfriend Esther (Sarah Le Picard), who has also started a new life, with a fiancé and a job teaching Hebrew school. Making a fresh start starts to look attractive if he can finally take positive action, but it won’t be easy.
Alex first has to face the immigration (and security-conscious) bureaucracy of the Jewish Agency for Israel. (I was similarly discouraged years ago when I inquired out of curiosity.) He needs to provide everything from proof of his Jewish identity, which he had never really considered beyond a vague ethnicity; learn Hebrew; and explain his motivations (at least he knows for sure that he doesn’t want to serve in the army). Esther reminds him what they both thought of Israel: “We said we were Jews, right, but in Paris, we were Parisians, and there was not a damn reason for us to go there.” He also has to avoid a disqualifying criminal record even though he raises the money for his share of the restaurant investment from his last, risky (and suspenseful) deal on the dark streets of Paris. All of which has him examining his past and present lives and his obligations.
During the time he’s preparing to depart, he meets and starts falling for the very gentile Jeanne (Adèle Haenel, the queen bee from Water Lilies). As adorable as they are together, she is surprisingly understanding about the complicated web of connections around him as they consider their promising future. However, Alex, though appealing, still seems too passive a character. He continues to be more swept up in the actions and saving graces of his family and friends than determining his own decision, whether to be just another immigrant in a strange land.