Holy Lands, out on Video On Demand and in select theaters now, is billed as the story of a retired cardiologist and lapsed Jew (James Caan), who has decided to spend his retirement as a pig farmer in Nazareth, Israel, putting him at odds with local religious leaders. That isn’t how I’d describe this film, and honestly it isn’t a synopsis that particularly calls to me. But I’ve loved Rosanna Arquette since the first time I saw Desperately Seeking Susan, so when I saw her name on the cast list, my curiosity was piqued.
I watched Holy Lands, and if I were asked what it is, I’d call it a family drama. It’s the story of one well-off family making peace with reality, both as individuals and as a collective. True, James Caan’s character moves to Israel to raise pigs and has a contentious relationship with the local religious leaders, but more importantly (maybe), he has distanced himself from his ex-wife (Arquette) and adult children. His choice to leave the country seems connected to his having stopped speaking to his playwright son (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) after he came out. And all four members of the family are going through personal transitions that affect their relationships with each other.
To my delight, I was offered the opportunity to speak with Rosanna about the film, and she generously let me ask her a few questions about Desperately Seeking Susan, too.
Leona Laurie: What was it that attracted you to this film?
Rosanna Arquette: Just the story of family, and and the dynamic of family, and the complications of family I thought were very interesting to explore– and how people communicate and miscommunicate. The bottom line is that there is love.
LL: The film is based on a novel by Amanda Sthers, who also adapted it for the screen and directed it. Have you ever worked with a director before who had so much invested in the work?
RA: I’ve worked with writers who wrote screenplays. John Sayles in Baby It’s You, and writer-directors, but no. She has a beautiful novel that actually just came out in America this spring— it was written in French. She and I were going to do another movie together that ended up falling apart for me, and then she came to me and said, “Would you do this?”
I love the character. I also love working in France. It was an all French crew, even though we shot it in Belgium (and they shot in Israel), and it was just a beautiful story. I just love the story. I love her writing. It’s very poetic. Everybody communicates through letters, which people don’t … it’s a lost art. People don’t do that anymore. I love that she brought that into this.
LL: Your clothing and jewelry are so striking in the film– as though they’re telling part of the story. In particular, you wear a snake ring that seems significant. Is it?
RA: I’m wearing that snake ring right now! I did wear my own jewelry in it. I always pick a piece if it works for the character. The snake ring is a very old ring and has protection… that’s what I feel. We need to protect ourselves in this day and age.
It’s funny, because I didn’t wear it since the film. I took it off and I just put it on two days ago. I think it’s really old. It’s an antique.
Yeah. So I thought that that would work for her. In fact, I bought it for the character. I always do that. I’ll get something, not necessarily expensive jewelry, usually not, but sometimes I’ll buy something that represents the character for me. For this I did the snake ring.
LL: If I’m not mistaken, during this film, you and James Caan don’t actually appear in the same room at all.
RA: We never got to work together. We know each other. In December it opened in France, so we were there together doing promotion. But no, we didn’t get to work with each other. We’re very committed actors, and I think we would’ve had a great time together, though.
LL: You told me you were in Israel while they were filming, but you’re not in the Israel scenes?
RA: No, it just didn’t work for me to be there. But we did a trip there, so I got to meet with the director right before she shot. Amanda and I are really good friends, and we will work together again. I have a movie that I want to direct, and she’s going to produce, so that’s exciting.
LL: Before I geek out about Desperately Seeking Susan, do you have any parting thoughts about Holy Lands?
RA: I know people are very moved when they see the movie. I feel like it’s about family who misfire in their communication, and everybody does it in their own way. But the core of that is the love that everybody is trying to get to. And families are complicated! I mean, God knows I have one. And even though there’s the core of love, everybody deals with grief in their own ways. Everybody deals with their childhood, and how the way parents were with one kid is very different with the other kid… and the marks that those leave. So I think that that shows in this movie: how people can miscommunicate, even though there’s love there.
LL: Beautiful. Now! Roberta Glass, your character in Desperately Seeking Susan, is one of my cinema heroes. Can we please talk about that film for a bit?
RA: Oh, that’s so great. One thing that is good to know is that that was a groundbreaking film in that it was a female executive, Barbara Boyle, who brought that movie in to Orion Pictures and got it made. And with a female director, with female writers, female producers, about females– it’s a women’s piece, and it was the first of its kind. Nobody had done that. We were really groundbreaking. I like to brag about that, because it was a groundbreaking film at the time– not just because Madonna was exploding into the world as the star she became, which was right then.
LL: That movie is another one where you have such a great wardrobe. Did you get to keep any of it?
RA: You know it’s really sad, I had the jacket, I had the original, but I gave it to my stepdaughter years ago, and she can’t find it. They want to put it in the Academy Museum, I heard. I think there might be another one, but they were trying to track it down.
Santo Loquasto was such a great production designer in wardrobe, he worked on so many wonderful films. We were lucky to have him, and he created such a fantastic look. I loved all the antique 50s frilly things he had. The magic show costumes were great.
LL: Are you still friends with Aidan Quinn?
RA: We saw each other about eight years ago, maybe nine years ago because at the Lincoln Center they were showing Desperately Seeking Susan. I haven’t seen him in a long time, but I think he’s a fantastic actor. I’d love to work with him again. I always thought it would be fun to do a film about where they are now.
LL: I would watch that. In Desperately Seeking Susan, you have a gig as a magician’s assistant. Did you learn magic tricks in real life?
RA: Well, no. The whole sawing thing was funny. I really did get to do that.
RA: John Turturro was wonderful in it. “Practice. Practice a lot.” I like him.
LL: Thank you, Rosanna. I hope you will do a sequel someday. I have some ideas about…
RA: What happens to Susan?
LL: How about this? Roberta’s having a wonderful life and Susan is the desperate one this time. She’s trying to rediscover her sense of self after raising 10 kids with Jim, and she turns to Roberta for help.
RA: That’s a good idea. They haven’t kept in touch in all these years, but they maybe meet each other at a juice place or the meditation place or the yoga place.
LL: Or they’re in a Facebook group. Whatever the modern equivalent of the classifieds is, that’s where Susan’s looking for fulfillment now and Roberta shows up.
Holy Lands is streaming and in select theaters now. Treat yourself to a rewatch of Desperately Seeking Susan on Amazon Prime (until June 30, when it goes away). If you do see Holy Lands, be forewarned that there’s a potentially triggering depiction of the aftermath of cruelty to an animal about 3/4 of the way through. The family themes are extremely moving and honest, but there’s that one scene that was extremely hard for me to watch.
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