Walking (and laughing) on Holy Air

With Shady Srour and Laëtitia Eïdo. 81 minutes. Hebrew title: Avir Kadosh. In Arabic and Hebrew, check with theaters for subtitle information

Holy Air (photo credit: DANIEL MILLER)
Holy Air
(photo credit: DANIEL MILLER)
In the new film Holy Air, Shady Srour, a Christian writer/director/actor from Nazareth, has managed to achieve what might seem impossible: To mine the story of an Arab living in Israel and find the laughs there, as well as some pathos and pain. 

This very funny, highly satirical film works because it is about one particular person, Adam (Srour). Adam is not a stereotypical victim, but a complex, opinionated human being, at times arrogant and foolish, but always real. Living in Nazareth, he has a very particular set of problems, but he also faces the same issues that so many people do. In the very first scene, his wife, Lamia (Laëtitia Eïdo), finds out that she is pregnant. Like so many movie heroes before him, he’s not ready for fatherhood, particularly because his father (Tarik Kopty) is hospitalized with cancer. Adam can’t face taking on fatherhood just as he may be losing his own father. 

Another equally pressing problem is the fact that the business he owns with his friend isn’t earning him enough money to make a living. But while any number of people might have these doubts, Srour has Adam express them in a way that is both cinematic and funny. In a memorable scene, Lamia walks around the bathroom, flaunting her gorgeous legs while Adam lies passively in the bath, as she tells him exactly how much a child is going to cost them over the next two decades. It’s a scene any parent or parent-to-be will understand all too well. 

But while Adam has doubts about continuing the pregnancy, Lamia is exhilarated. Far more confident and together than her husband, Lamia is a social worker who speaks frankly about sexual issues, so much so that she reduces an all-male film crew interviewing her to virtual paralysis as she brandishes sex toys to encourage women to explore their sexuality. Eïdo, a gifted comedienne as well as a dramatic actress (she also plays Dr. Shirin on Fauda), is playing an uninhibited Diane Keaton-like character to Srour’s Woody Allen. The physical and emotional differences between the two – she is angular, playfully sexy and bold, he is round, stubborn and angst-ridden – work beautifully on screen. 

Adam’s feeling of being stuck is underscored by the traffic jams that trap his small, battered car as soon as he steps into it. As he travels up and down the Nazarene hills, it’s impossible for him to enjoy his hometown’s majestic views as he has to deal with the constant honking, maneuvering and fender benders that accompany the jams. The traffic moves so slowly that Lamia even manages to do her pregnancy test in their car. 

The title refers to what Adam thinks will be the way out of his predicament: bottles of air from Mount Precipice that he sells to tourists at ridiculously high prices. It’s a twist on the Yiddish concept of the luftmensch, a man of the air, someone with no income or solid profession. Adam wants to transform himself from a luftmensch into a prosperous husband and father precisely by making his living from the air itself. 

While the story has universal appeal, its more serious side comes out in a section when Lamia, sharing Adam’s discouragement at their prospects, agrees to have an abortion. Not wanting their friends and family to know, they travel to Tel Aviv, where two politically engaged members of the committee that grants permission for abortions get into a fight. One, on the left, wants to encourage them to think their decision over, since they are a young married couple, while the other, on the right, sees a golden opportunity to cut down on the demographic problem. Even their most personal and intimate decision is politicized because of where they live and who they are. The satire is bitter and pointed, but Srour blends it skillfully with the more comic scenes. 

The cinematography and music come together gracefully to tell Adam’s story. Srour’s wry comic presence is polished but convincing, and Eïdo, who has a face the camera loves, is an extraordinarily appealing presence. He spent 11 years making Holy Air and his careful work has paid off.