There are scenes in this film, when the camera lingers on the face of the protagonist, Noemi (played by the incredibly beautiful Ania Bukstein) right before, during and after an event has happened in her life. These close-up shots are beautiful, powerful and demand you to look into Ania’s steely gaze, then look away. These shots have no dialogue, hence they do not require any tedious reading of subtitles, but they are quite effective. Bukstein does not speak, but you can sense, just from watching her, the thoughts swirling through her mind, the emotions boiling beneath the calm exterior, raring to explode, like she is teetering over the edge of a precipice and debating whether to jump or not.
And this is one of the few things that make this movie, directed by US-educated Israeli director, Avi Nesher, compelling.
Bukstein’s Noemi is a young Orthodox Jewish woman whose father is a rabbi, and is being pressured to marry a man she is not even interested in. Her mother has just died. She convinces her father to allow her to go to Safed, to an Orthodox Jewish women’s seminary and study for a year before she gets married. Here she rooms with two interesting girls. When the first one comes on, you know this is not the one Noemi will fall for – logic will insist that she will fall for the hot, rebellious young woman who will probably be her exact opposite, who must have already come from some other hedonistic, nihilistic, liberal but incredibly romantic place, like, say Paris, drinks and smokes and gets into fights with the other ladies, as well as be fascinated with the beauty of the forbidden. True to my prediction – in comes Michel (Michal Shtamler), breezing into their room, the fourth roomie with a penchant for smoking, fighting and the unthinkable.
Naturally, the two don’t hit it off in the beginning, but they do begin to warm to each other, especially since it is impossible to be immune to each other’s charm, especially during a double dinner date with guys. What cements their relationship into a strong bond though is a friendship they form with the town’s outcast, Anouk (the amazing Fanny Ardant – she walks into a room and you can see something profound fill every square inch of screen. She commands the camera to pay attention to her. This is my first time to see her and I even I sense this), who is driven by past misdeeds (and possibly a crime) to seek redemption at the hands of the patriarchal, sexist rabbis of the church, only to be turned away.
When Michel convinces Noemi to provide Anouk with that elusive, long-withheld, well-deserved redemption thorugh “Tikkun” and the forbidden practice of the sacred Kabbala, this is actually where the film takes off and soars and keeps flying well into the end credits. The rituals they go through, the prayers, the burning, and the climactic immersing into the water, a kind of purification, both thrilling, compelling and fascinating all at the same time, the scene itself almost seems like a prayer, an invocation for us to explore deep within our own societies, and ourselves and even to something even more primal and ancient. Noemi and Michel’s activities do not go unnoticed and for their actions, they receive disapproval, condemnation and the threat of ostracism from their church elders, friends and society. And this is where it sustains my interest. Rather than go the overly melodramatic route (as some filmmakers are wont to do) and scenes of blood and tears and much gnashing of teeth, with the requisite exposition (usually delivered by the protagonist), about the world being unfair and unjust, Nesher chooses to play it smart, and keeps our main characters, especially Noemi, as intelligent as they were when we first beheld them. Noemi, for example, remains strong, adamant, forceful. As she discovers the secrets of their holy books, and their rituals and practices, she slowly becomes even more empowered, and you can almost see her new empowered self emerging from the old one. There is a growing confidence and strength in her, and you can see it as she takes on friends, family, even the church. Her character remains lean, taut, as if ready to strike any minute at anyone who challenges her newfound enlightenment and discovery that she can, in fact, go head to head with any of the male patriarchs of their church. And she manages to do this without shedding a single tear, being hysterical or killing herself. As she discovers who she is, her world outside unravels. She discovers things about the church but it does not seem as if change is possible. She discovers a deep affection and love for Michel, culminating in one night of (not-so) unbridled, consummated passion (more on that later) but it ends with Michel marrying the neighborhood flutist anyway (there is a confrontation scene between the groom-to-be and Noemi that is so explosive it’s amazing: and Bukstein barely even says anything). She discovers that the road to redemption and change is long and arduous.
I found this film refreshing and brilliant. And while I may secretly would have wanted the two main characters to end up together and have a happy ending, I also knew, deep inside that it would make sense that they wouldn’t. I already knew from first setting my eyes on Michel’s character that they would probably discover something profound with each other but would never be together. Plus, the movie already made a point of illustrating how hard it is to be a woman in the Orthodox communities of Israel, how much harder would it be for a lesbian living in the same place (are you reading this, fellow gay movie goers? This is not a stereotypical lesbian movie. I don’t even think of it as a lesbian movie,but an Israeli film with lesbian content.). As I already said, I found Bukstein’s acting amazing. It does not hurt that she is beautiful as well and I am totally crushing on her as well. My only regret is that I did not see a more explicit love scene between her and Michel and instead see a lot of legs, granny underwear, and partially obscured faces in what would seem to be throes of ecstacy. In what universe is lesbian sex as weird and as embarassing to watch as this? ^^ Clearly this was directed by a straight man trying to escape the Israeli board of censors. No, wait, it was directed by a straight man trying to escape the Israeli board of censors. Note to director: either show it or don’t show it all. ^^ Better yet, show them like director Jean Jacques Annaud did in “L’Amant” (The Lover, 1992) as shots of skin, light, in rapid succession – effectively reducing the intimate scene itself to an exhilirating,tittilating abstraction (Sigh…they don’t make them like they used to anymore. If this were L-Word, we would have seen, not only the love scene from all the different possible and probably angles known to man, but we would also see some ass, some accessories and whole lot of atttitude.). But this is the only, extremely minor complaint I have about this film. Overall, it is a beautiful film – and it is a testament to the fact that acting isn’t just about delivery of words. It is about being, itself. Sadly something Hollywood has lost in all its years of pursuing global box office glory. Size does not really matter. It’s substance that does. ^^
Best quote about this film I’ve ever encountered:
“When considering this film, you won’t have to sigh to yourself, “Oh, another of those Kabbalistic, lesbian, coming-of-age romps.” –Regrets, commands, Rule of Love:’The Secrets’ follows young women into seminary in Israel” (January 09, 2009)