‘Holy Lands’ a confused attempt to chronicle family’s connection

Amanda Sther’s Holy Lands tells the story of a family dispersed across the world, their personal stories, and disconnected relationships. While potent with compassion, the story gets buried by an unsuccessful attempt to translate novel into film . (HRM: 2/5)

Review by FF2 Media’s Hannah Mayo

Holy Lands starts with the story of “Harry Rosenmerck” (James Caan), a divorced cardiologist who left his family and home in New York to raise pigs in Nazareth. This receives backlash from the Jewish locals, specifically rabbi Moshe (Tom Hollander), who repeatedly sends him letters demanding that he shut his business down. Despite a brief feud, the two strike up an unexpected friendship when the local Christian church tries to push him out of his home on a claim that the house has a holy history, an

While he stays disconnected from his previous life, his family’s story plays on across the world. His ex wife Monica (Rosanna Arquette) finds out she has breast cancer and only about a year to live, prompting her to connect to her family. Their son, David (Johnathan Rhys Meyers), adamant to remain out of touch from his parents, directs a play that illustrates that illustrates their family dynamic through the use of letters, which is their primary way of communicating. Their daughter, Annabelle (Efrat Dor), is a 34 year old with no job who travels the world with a 35mm camera. She is the only one who draws a line between the four characters by visiting her father in Nazareth and her brother and mother in New York.

Time continues on and so do the family’s separate stories. Annabelle gets pregnant while visiting Israel. Monica’s condition worsens, but David refuses to see her. The four of them stay connected throughout all of this only through letters.

Holy Lands is based on a book written by Amanda Sthers, who also wrote and directed the film. It is easy to see how these stories originated in a novel, written as a series of letters to and from each family member. The massive amount of information in the stories and their expository nature are traits of the written novel, but Sthers did not manage to successfully translate this into the medium of film.

The story Holy Lands tells in the end seems to have no intentional direction except to capture a year in the family’s lives. The character’s individual stories, especially Harry’s, are at times engaging and worth further consideration, but the sheer amount of information this film is trying to convey prevents that from happening. As a result, the story’s overall message is lost in translation. This leaves the viewer ultimately detached from the film and at the mercy of the easy dramatic arches used by the writer to conjure an emotional response. 

An awkward narration accompanies most of the film, used to fill out lags in the story and expose important character histories. Unfortunately, these felt overall drawn out and poorly acted, and did not manage to be an effective storytelling tool within the film. While the recurring motif of letters between the family members within the film is perhaps the only thing mangages to tie a bow on the bouquet of story lines, in the end it does not succeed in salvaging any sense of a focused story. 

In the end, Holy Lands is a confused attempt to chronicle a family’s connection across countries and time. Any substance within the characters’ stories gets drowned by the sheer amount of plot points and themes Sthers attempted to tackle. Unfortunately, any glimpse of emotional connection from the screen to the viewer is heavily overshadowed by muddled and misdirected storytelling.

© Hannah Mayo | FF2 Media