Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Secrets (Ha-Sodot)

THE SECRETS (Ha-Sodot)        B 
Israel France (127 mi) 2007 d: Avi Nesher    Official site

Beautifully shot in the holy city of Safed, Israel, otherwise known as Tzfat, sitting high atop the Galilee mountains, known as the birthplace of kabbalah, this plays out like a really terrific soap opera, as the story at times feels like serial installments, growing ever deeper into a mysterious rebellion against the patriarchal precedents established through Orthodox Judaism, expressed, oddly enough, through the kabbalistic religious rituals of tikkun, which was meant to help cleanse the spirit of a dying woman as she prepares to meet God. However, when initiated by two female seminary students, one the brilliant daughter of an Orthodox Jewish rabbi, this defies the practice of male-only rabbi’s providing the prayer service, so is considered forbidden. However, this melodramatic rendering, which shows no disrespect to any existing rabbi’s, but a natural outgrowth, is a provocative alternative, especially since it adds the allure of a sexual relationship developing between the two female students as well. I can imagine gasps and groans if this was shown to Israeli audiences, as if the filmmaker was seen as a provocateur along the lines of Michael Haneke, who clearly insists his audience squirm with discomfort. Rather, this simply poses the possibility of females being as academically proficient as their male seminary student counterparts and being equally capable of interpreting the Talmud, the Bible, and other religious history and law. Currently, like the Catholics, women are forbidden from rising to this level of responsibility in Jewish Orthodox society. So in a realistic sense, this plays out more like an improbable fairy tale drenched in the realism of the tikkun, shown here as a socially compelling cleansing ritual that is meant to help repair the spiritual world and all its inhabitants, where each new installment unearths more hidden secrets, eventually feeling like a road map to buried treasure. 

In the movies, it always helps when the woman in question is as gorgeous as Noemi, Ania Bukstein, who is so desperate to postpone her arranged marriage that she convinces her rabbi father that she needs a year in devout contemplative seminary study before she will be ready to marry her fiancé, an emotionally cold and strict young man she has little interest in who was chosen to be both husband and rabbi student by her equally pious father. While he insists that marriage is her highest calling, he also recognizes the stubborn, persistent will of his daughter who in his eyes always knows the answers before she asks him any questions. When she reaches the female-only seminary largely as a means to avoid a loveless marriage, an ironic twist since the seminary seems to be a grooming school for potential husbands, no one is as gifted a student as Noemi, who displays a surprisingly advanced maturity in religious knowledge, but fairly backward social standards, as when others sing and dance, freely expressing the joy of prayer in ways that have been strictly forbidden to women, she sits at a noticeable distance and only occasionally mouths along. Enter another student Michel, Michal Shtamler, a spoiled, rebellious, highly rambunctious French-speaking girl who appears to have been sent to the seminary against her will, almost like the punishment of a boot camp. They are paired together to come to the aid of a dying woman, Anouk (Fanny Ardent), a French-speaking woman recently released from prison after murdering her boyfriend, supposedly out of love, who now expresses an interest in redemption. All of this has melodramatic allure, which actually intensifies the interest in the film, as it takes what was otherwise a fairly ordinary battle-of-the-wills family drama and throws in this dysfunctional Mod Squad pairing of young women and turns them into benevolent forces for social change, becoming ambassadors for public good. Based on this tonal shift away from unwanted societal obligations, now suddenly free to develop their own way, the audience is much more willing to accept that these two improbables soon become fast friends, which happens all too quickly. In this case, it is Michel’s highly adept social skills with Anouk, taking to her immediately, instilling an enthusiastic interest in wanting to offer help, but it requires Noemi’s innate knowledge of the scripture to develop a holy elixir. 

Offscreen, if one simply described the story, much of this might sound preposterous, but it makes perfect sense when seen as a developing buddy movie, where two friends have a zealous sense of social outreach, taking a road movie approach, as they veer away from standard practices, but only because Noemi has a near Godlike understanding of Judaic scripture, which in the Orthodox world spews out of the mouths of practitioners and passes for ordinary conversation. But in their spiritual quest the two girls grow closer together, where the expression of affection becomes physical, opening each other’s eyes and hearts, blending the religious concept of love into a more practical application. Obviously, this is heresy to the true believers, as physical sex between women is unthinkable, even worse than defying their elders. But the brazen nature of their characters really works as it only reaches the line, never crossing it, always maintaining a discreet distance, allowing the audience a chance to grasp the idea of a futuristic utopia, a hallowed ground of possibilities, all things being equal, something akin to a spiritual, meditative ethos that allows women into the inner sanctity of Orthodox Judaism without diminutive second-class stature. While this is a major undertaking, letting the door loose while examining love in all its implications, from earthly to spiritual as experienced by two eagerly rebellious seminary students, it only works when their friendship has no limits and is as loosely defined as shown here, which is compelling stuff, two hearts beating and following their natural inclinations. The love angle is daring and intentionally confrontational, obviously too extreme for some (gay priests, anyone?), but in contrast, it perfectly posits the idea of female Orthodox rabbi’s as a relatively moderate view.

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