Nihilism is a hell of an ethos. Rooting one’s identity in the unrootable pointlessness of the universe is a mentally and emotionally taxing enterprise, a denial of purpose or meaning so that one may embrace the meaninglessness of it all. Birthing a cinematic narrative from such an ethos seems like an exercise in futility, as a story generally requires stakes and emotional investment. Yet Holy Air seems determined to demonstrate the futility in all things, satisfaction and narrative cohesion be damned. With that goal in mind, Holy Air might actually be a massive success in its undertaking; but as an entertaining film, it makes for a pretty weak display.
Our story, for what narrative there actually is, revolves around Adam (Shady Srour, who also wrote and directed the film), an Israeli man in Nazareth who is just trying to get by when his wife Lamia (Laëtitia Eïdo) announces that she’s pregnant. Worried about the cost of raising a child, as well as the cost of treating his cancer-victim father (Tarik Kopty), Adam puts his entrepreneurial skills to the test as he attempts to market a new product to tourists to the holy land: Holy Air. He bottles air from atop the holy mountain and sells it, taking what he gathers for free and essentially turning a profit on nothing.
As a commentary on the commoditization and marketing of religion, this is a pretty sly premise, demonstrating how a man like Adam can, without ever actually lying about what he’s selling, convince people to turn over their money for nothing. This becomes complicated by efforts by the Catholic Church, the Israeli Ministry of Tourism, and the local criminal syndicate to subvert and co-opt Adam’s product, each of which sells their own forms of bullshit. That’s a pretty clever way to place a harsh lens on a perceived meaninglessness to established forms of human organization for supposed higher purpose, and if the film had anything to say beyond that observation there might have been a great conceit here.
The problem with Holy Air is that it is so committed to its ideology of meaninglessness that the narrative wanders to the point of distraction. The first act meanders for an excruciatingly long time for a seventy-five minute film, drifting around Adam’s life as he and Lamia ponder whether to get an abortion and Adam waits to see if his father will need to lose his tongue to cancer. The script makes a big deal out of repeatedly pointing out fifty-fifty odds and demonstrating how any of these results could have been different by pure chance, but that’s the extent of the message, and once that becomes obvious the film has exposed itself as equally arbitrary. There are even random circumstances that approach comic relief in their bizarre randomness, but without more than the film’s hollow nihilism to support them these scenes fall flat.
Maybe this is expecting too much of a film where the central conceit is that nothing matters, but Holy Air seems to argue against its own existence by positing that we become completely disillusioned by proselytizing. There is absolutely nothing wrong with deconstructing social orders and exposing hypocrisy, but without an ethos of one’s own the exercise feels spiteful and unproductive. Holy Air only sees problems and doesn’t care enough to offer solutions. Adam doesn’t grow in his capitalistic journey, and by journey’s end he has nothing to show for his troubles but the results of random happenstance. That’s just not enough to hang a narrative on.