When considering this film, you won't have to sigh to yourself, "Oh, another of those Kabbalistic, lesbian, coming-of-age romps."
Avi Nesher, the film's director and writer, with Hadar Galron, takes his film into a strange, attention-getting setting, ripe for all sorts of struggles and ambiguities. He chooses Safed, Israel, the ancient seat of Kaballa, which is the highly charged mystical wing of Judaism. The place looks beautiful as well as bringing all those reverberations. And the plot is as unusual as the setting.
I don't imagine an Israeli filmmaker is delighted to have his film touring when his government is killing Palestinians, but this thoughtful, intricate film stays far from the war.
The camera follows four young women to an ultraorthodox seminary in Safed; this embodies a contradiction in itself. In a culture where women are under men's collective thumb, their chance to learn the sacred knowledge, or the secrets, is revolutionary, or at least evolutionary.
But still, the headmistress is timid. She dares to dream there may be an ultraorthodox woman rabbi someday, but in the present she always defers to the male rabbis for fear they will close her school. The parallel with the male domination of Catholicism is mentioned.
The two leads are played by actors largely unknown in this country.
Ania Bukstein is Naomi, a gifted sacred scholar who would like to be a rabbi. Instead, when her mother dies, she is expected to marry her father's prodigy who will be the rabbi instead. She manages to talk her father into a year of study, where she meets Michal, played by Michal Shtamler, a sulky, hard-smoking French student who irritates Naomi until they are assigned to take food to a dying woman of whom their headmistress disapproves, in fact a murderer.
Fanny Ardant, a French film goddess since the '80s, plays Anouk, who tells the girls that not only did she kill her lover but also posed for the nude bondage portraits he painted. She now has both cancer and heart disease and wants to make her peace with God.
Naomi combines four rituals from the Kabbala for Anouk's salvation, a study that is considered far too advanced and dangerous for a mere student - and a woman at that.
At the ritual the girls create for her to ask forgiveness, Anouk announces one of the film's main themes, that she cannot regret love. The ritual blows up at such heresy, and the girls are eventually expelled. Oh, and they begin sex and love along the way, a choice that Naomi points out isn't prohibited in the Bible because women don't "spill their seed."
The photography is beautiful and so is the soundtrack with the women's chanting a frequent accompaniment. The music plays especially well against the Hebrew dialogue. Subtitles are provided.
The acting is fresh, and the way themes work out in the longish film (at 127 minutes, a few cuts wouldn't have hurt) makes for an entertainment that will spark conversations after the show.
Plan to go with friends so you'll be able to enjoy those conversations.