Ancient obstacles, barriers, walls. Ancient stereotypes, prejudices, forced inequalities. Continue to the present day. Continue around the world. A fine Israeli film, The Secrets, explores those barriers and shows the conflicts within traditions, between traditions, in a fresh, often moving way.
The story is not complex, but there are surprises, and those surprises break down walls. A brilliant young Israeli woman, Naomi (played by Ania Bukstein), wants desperately to become a Rabbi someday, like her father. She knows that this is next to impossible, given the ancient strictures of her ultra-orthodox faith. But she also knows that she has studied harder than her male peers, knows the Torah and the Talmud better than they do, and appears to be far more serious about enlightenment. The only barrier for her is her gender.
Naomi’s father has arranged a marriage for his daughter and his best Yeshiva student. There is nothing there. No spark, no life. Naomi knows the student doesn’t respect her and scoffs at her ambitions. He scoffs perhaps out of fear. He probably knows that she is a better student, that she is more than his equal, but can never admit as much. Shocking her father and her family, Naomi finds a way to postpone the wedding and go to seminary school in Safed. Her life changes dramatically from that point on.
She meets her two new roommates, Sigi and Sheine, and then a third, Michel (played by Michal Shtamler). At first, Michel is the proverbial bull in a china shop and doesn’t fit in, doesn’t want to fit in. Originally from France, Michel initially sees Safed as a backwater and desperately wants to leave. But a chance encounter with a dying woman just out of prison, played by Fanny Ardant, sets in motion a project for the four young students, and a surprising relationship between Naomi and Michel develops. Anouk, a convicted murderer, seeks absolution for her past sins, and Naomi and Michel try to bring it to her in the form of Tikkun, a way of healing, repairing the world, using ritual and prayer. Sigi and Sheine join them later, which causes yet another dramatic break.
The dynamic between Naomi and Michel is centered on an awakening. Often beautiful, with a few small surprises, the dynamic is transgressive, but never for its own sake. The viewer believes in the relationship between the two women, sees it as natural, as a natural outcome of chance, environment, proximity and evolution. It is yet another secret among many, and acts as its own Tikkun. Complexity comes to the fore in the sense of directions for that Tikkun. Who is the healing for? Is the open-endedness of the process a blessing in itself? Who is impacted? What is lost, missed, left out?
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The special features in the DVD tell us how intense the production was. Avi Nesher tried to make sure his actors all were totally immersed in their parts. We learn, for instance, that Ania Bukstein is secular, but that she studied the world of the ultra-orthodox intensely, read scripture, dove deeply into Judaism and Kabbala for the film. Nesher tried to evoke an authentic world that most of us never see. The DVD doesn’t mention, however, the beautiful music in play, in the sense that it might strike the viewer as unrealistically good, almost “professional” in its quality. The women of the seminary often sing, and their singing is wonderful, on key, in harmony, and so on. It worked for me regardless. I thought it was Nesher’s way of heightening that part of reality and taking some poetic license, in order to evoke the emotion of unity.
It’s a film well worth seeing . . . .