The humor in Shady Srour’s Holy Air isn’t entirely satirical, but the bone-dry wit is breathtaking. In one instance, Adam (Srour), a Christian Arab in Nazareth, tries to convince an international group of Holy Land tourists of the authenticity of the souvenir he’s selling (a lovely stoppered bottle containing air from Mount Precipice) by casually drinking their holy water and intimating that it comes from the tap. Adam doesn’t see himself as a huckster: he actually clambers up the rocky slope to fill those bottles. He’s also fully aware of his impertinence, but this foolhardy sales technique epitomizes his slippery relationship with religious doctrine.
As writer and director, Srour (Sense of Need) presents the multilingual, college-educated, liberal Adam as a cultural polymath, able to easily traverse the different strata of Israeli society. But Srour anchors his performance in Adam’s relationships, especially with his progressive, passionate wife, Lamia (Laëtitia Eïdo), who’s just discovered she’s pregnant, and frail father (Tarik Kopty), whose cancer prognosis is grim.
With a masterful sense of framing, Srour and cinematographer Daniel Miller turn beautifully composed shots into absurdist delights with a simple twist. Their Nazareth is gorgeous, but without a beatific glow: it’s a cramped urban center of rage-inducing traffic jams and ruthless spirituality vendors. Pilgrims seek the lightness of spiritual transcendence, and Srour contrasts them with city residents weighed down by everyday catastrophes and paralyzing fears. Holy Air is a mordant memento mori, whose characters celebrate their fleeting corporeal existence while navigating the shifting currents of disillusionment and belief.
Review by Serena Donadoni
Released on November 17, 2017 by Samuel Goldwyn Films
First published in The Village Voice, 2017.