As a rabbinical student, 20-something Mendy is supposed to consider only sacred texts. But he gets caught with a copy of Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha, and that’s not the worst of it. He also looks at fashion magazines, using them—The Holy Land quickly and brashly reveals—as masturbatory aids. His rabbi suggests that Mendy (Oren Rehany) go to Tel Aviv, have his way with a “harlot,” and get sex out of his system. Of course, it doesn’t work that way. One handjob later, Mendy is in love with Sasha (Tchelet Semel), a 19-year-old Ukrainian hooker who considers Israeli men “stupid” but is attracted to Mendy’s American passport. The yeshiva dropout becomes a regular at the Love Boat, Sasha’s workplace, and takes a job at a multiculti Jerusalem dive run by a burly former combat photographer (Saul Stein). Mendy loves his new life at first, but things don’t go well for him—indeed, The Holy Land could be screened by yeshivas as a warning to students tempted to stray. That’s probably not what writer-director Eitan Gorlin had in mind, though. Raised Orthodox in Silver Spring, he was briefly an extreme Zionist and moved to Israel after college. He ultimately became disillusioned and now lives in L.A. After this semiautobiographical film was made in 1999, Gorlin struggled for several years to find a distributor. One obvious problem: It’s a movie about Israel that’s unlikely to win many friends on the Jewish-film-festival circuit. After all, it opens with Sasha’s anti-Israel remarks, features supporting characters who are decidedly lacking in ideological or religious purity, and focuses on a young man who trades the Torah for a gentile prostitute. Still, this well-cast but clumsily written film is no polemic. In fact, its politics are almost as muddled as its story, which lurches toward a contrived conclusion. The Holy Land documents an intriguing cross-cultural demimonde, but Rehany’s earnestness, Stein’s big-man-in-town swagger, and Israel-born Semel’s Slavic accent are more persuasive than the script. —Mark Jenkins