Tuesday, March 17, 2009

NJJFF, etc: The Secrets

In 1577, Safed, one of the Four Holy Cities of Judaism, became the site of the first printing press of the entire Ottoman Empire. Long venerated as a seat of mystical learning, Safed also has a strong klezmer music scene, all of which provides an intriguing backdrop for Avi Nesher’s latest film, The Secrets, (trailer here), an examination of gender issues and traditional authority in Orthodox culture, which screens at three separate Tri-State film festivals over the next few days.

Young Noemi’s faith is strong, but her life is plagued with emptiness. After her mother’s death, she convinces her learned rabbi father to postpone her marriage to a sanctimonious fiancĂ©, allowing her to enroll in a Midrasha, a seminary for young women founded by Orthodox feminists. There in Safed, the bookish Noemi, able to quote long passages of sacred texts from memory, is thrown together with three perfectly mismatched roommates, including the rebellious Michal, a spoiled rich girl from France. To Noemi’s annoyance, the two women are both assigned to serve a new client for their Midrasha’s meals-for-shut-ins program: Anouk a notorious but aging French-speaking murderess.

Hardly an innocent victim, Anouk really did murder her lover in a crime of passion. Facing her own impending mortality, the older woman desperately seeks spiritual redemption from the unsympathetic religious authorities of Safed. Against her own better judgment, Noemi delves into Kabala, looking for an impossible tikun: a cleansing ritual for the sin of murder.

Unlike most contemporary films, Secrets treats concepts like sin and redemption with absolute sincerity. It is at its strongest when portraying the relationship between the two younger women and the ailing Anouk, played by the distinguished French actress Fanny Ardant. The ancient walls of Safed function almost like another character, effectively heightening the film’s aura of metaphysical mystery. However, the development of a problematic lesbian relationship between Noemi and Michal does not really cover any new territory not previously seen in other films about homosexuality in traditional societies, including the Orthodox documentary, Trembling Before G-D.

Nesher helms the film with admirable restraint and sensitivity, while cinematographer Michel Abramowicz invests the action with a warm, mysterious glow. The cast is quite credible, including the great Ardant, and the memorable Adir Miller, as Yanki, the tragically likable klezmer clarinetist, who becomes Noemi’s rival for Michal’s affections.

Along with other recent film imports, like The Band’s Visit and Jellyfish, Secrets well represents the increasing diversity of contemporary Israeli filmmaking. While the drama between Noemi and Michal eventually gets a bit over-wrought, the film is a handy corrective for those who exclusively associate Kabala with trendy red bracelets. It screens Wed. (3/18) at the Hartford Jewish Film Festival, Sat. (3/21) at the Rockland Jewish Film Festival, and Mon. (3/22) and Sun. (3/22) at the New Jersey Jewish Film Festival.