Avi Nesher. Israel. 2007.

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The rigidity of male-dominated ultra-Orthodox Judaism and the heresy of female same sex partnership inform Avi Nesher's overwrought but effective melodrama, The Secrets. The film, nominated for eight awards by the Israeli Film Academy, is about a young woman who values “truth above tradition, sincerity above conformity, and human needs above legal technicalities” but runs into a buzz saw led by those who cannot see beyond ancient words. Naomi (Ania Bukstein) at first seems like a traditional rabbi's daughter - withdrawn, intellectual, and submissive, one who does not question her father Rabbi Hess (Sefi Rivlin) or his orthodoxy. Since her mother has died, however, she has become more aware of the limited role her mother played in the family life, a role that led to her depression. 

She tells her father "Often when I came into this kitchen, I found her weeping.", and begins to question the direction of her own life. Instead of agreeing to marry her fiancé Michael (Guri Alfi), one of her father's rabbinical students, a man she does not love and who treats her in a condescending manner, she asks instead to postpone the marriage and go away to study at the Daat Emet seminary for women in Safed, an old city noted for its devotion to practices of mystical Judaism. The seminary is an avenue for Jewish women who want to study Talmud and Torah before they plunge into marriage. It is led by a woman who hopes that someday there will be a female rabbi, but offers only patience and faith while quietly awaiting a “silent revolution”. 

One of Naomi's roommates, Michelle (Michal Shtamler), is an irritable young woman recently arrived in Israel from Paris. Naomi and Michelle are assigned to deliver food daily to Anouk (Fanny Ardant), a cancer patient, also from France. They learn that Anouk has recently been released from prison after serving fifteen years for murder, an event Anouk describes as a crime of passion. Although the reasons are not explained, she has come to Israel to seek healing and redemption for her crime even though she is not Jewish. She wants God to forgive her before she dies and wants Naomi and Michelle to help her achieve atonement. 

Anouk asks for a Tikkun, an ancient Kabbalistic cleansing ritual based on the symbol of Tikkun ha-Olam which embodies the command that humanity must restore and redeem a broken and fallen world. In some of the film's strongest sequences, the girls and Anouk visit a holy cleansing pool in the middle of the night because it is off limits for women. Feminist and Lesbian issues are touched in Naomi and Michelle's growing relationship that expands into sexual exploration. An additional subplot involves the high-spirited Yanki (Adir Miller), a klezmer clarinetist who has his eyes on the marriage possibilities with one of the girls. While The Secrets goes on too long and may be over-plotted, it is wonderfully acted by Bukstein, Ardant, and Shtamler and makes clear that the fight against dogma and religious intolerance is one that is as real today as ever.


Howard Schumann

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