Movies The SecretsAvi Nesher’s 2007 film, The Secrets, is full of them, though not only the secret forbidden love promised by the posters. Neither are they the secrets of a whodunnit, dark and dangerous.  They are secrets of the ordinary kind, the kind we all hold — personal, communal and some, not even considered secrets as much as things unsaid.  Among the ultra-Orthodox Jews of the film, as in all conservative communities it would seem, there is a higher ratio of secrets, the pressure to conform holding back play and discovery, questions and curiosity; they wait for a particular friend, a moment of “enough,” a decision to escape, to quit keeping quiet and join all else that is said.

Some of the secrets Nesher shares are simply the ways lives are lived in a culture not very familiar to most movie goers.  Secrets offers nicely observed moments of the  Haredi culture in Israel. A rare sighting in most American cities, in Safed, the highest town in northern Israel with a centuries long tradition of mystical and orthodox study, men wearing skull caps and homburgs, displaying tzitzits under black coats are a good percentage of the population, men Biblically instructed to be dominant over women. Women are dressed very conservatively — no trousers allowed– and segregated from the men, even dancing separately at weddings.

Among the faithful is Naomi [Ania Bukstein,] a scholarly, determined daughter of a prominent Rabbi [Seffy Rivlin,] and the fiance of Michael [Guri Alfione of his star pupils.  The strict, if doting, father has allowed, even encouraged, his bright off-spring to study the Jewish holy texts, though in full cognizance it will soon come to an end with her marriage and child-bearing.  Naomi is not so sure. She begs her father to allow her a year of study in an orthodox monastery in Safed, in a women only area of course, and to put off her marriage.  Reluctantly,father and fiancee agree.

The class room scenes of the twenty plus young women, under the commanding presence of their teacher [ Alma Zack,] are simply wonderful, bending to study, erupting in laughter.  Even among these other devout girls, Naomi is a star. When Michal (or Michelle, depending on the speaker’s recognition of her French origins) played by  Michal Shtamler comes in late and is assigned to room with Naomi and two others – insisting that she will smoke if it pleases her — another conflict/secret (number four or five?) is set in motion.  We know from the sweetly salacious posters that the two will be trysting; given the story so far it is very unclear how this might happen, and what explosions might ensue.

As the two young women make their way through the days, occasionally with the two other room mates, it is made clear that the aim of the girls’ side of the school is not to turn out scholars or rabbis, as on the men’s, but observant, religiously scrupulous wives. Whispered conversations are about who might be introduced to whom.  A cheerful, klezmer  clarinet playing fellow appears, a bit of a goof-ball, pudgy, plain, not as orthodox as his neighbors but capable of making joyful sounds.  He will be important.

It won’t do to run through the entire story.  It’s good enough that you should discover it for yourself. Though there are discernible lineaments of soap-opera in the exposition, the story, the tensions and the acting draw us in, gently but surely.  The surprise of love, of body touching, is the most discreet eroticism I have seen in many movie-years. There is also withdrawal and abandonment, ultimatums, changes of plans, a wedding, a wonderful warm husband among the rigid men around him and some ecstatic dancing to end it.

What is fascinating to me, despite the traditional setting out of the plot, is the slow, unremarked revelation of the various secrets,  from rituals and daily life of the orthodox to Naomi’s desire to be a Rabbi; from her orthodox teacher’s secret hope that some day female rabbis will be allowed to Naomi’s and Michal’s going beyond the Talmud to the secrets of the Kabbalah (they quickly close the book in the library if anyone wanders too close) as they look for a permitted way to offer Tikkun to the ailing Anouk.  Anouk’s secrets about her past are revealed, though not completely: did she murder?  Was she involved in highly charged sex as some paintings, kept secret, show? What is the secret of the cross she wears? Is she Jewish or Christian, and if Christian why does she want Tikkun?  And there are secrets not revealed, but kept. The new husband is a total mensch.

All the secrets have to do with transgressions against the dominant norms, the sexual exploration, of course, but the urge to study as a man, as well.  Even the compassion the two girls express for the dying Anouk is a transgression: they should be bringing food, and nothing more.  A requested hug is a momentous event.

All of this is filmed with marvelously lit colors, subdued, but rich.  The camera follows smoothly without calling attention to itself, tracking Noemi through a crowed room, a walk which had to be choreographed but looks as if she is just-in-time finding each space to move forward toward the front.  The four female leads are wonderful,  the two young ones as they overcome their initial prickliness and become friends, trying to help Anouk.  Their moments of caressing are as tender and unurged by anticipated pleasure as anything I’ve seen.   Fanny Ardant as Anouk retains much of her youthful beauty.  Perhaps she over-acts a bit in her illness, but then again, perhaps she is that ill.  Alma Zack as the teacher is terrific, a teacher we’d all be terrified of, and then life-long glad we’d had; a life-changing teacher.  Father and fiance are as casually contemptuous of women as we’d assume such a society would produce

Avi Nesher has had almost two cinematic careers as described here by Nick Dawson in Filmmaker Magazine. 

Once back (in Israel), Nesher wasted little time in establishing himself as one of the brightest young figures in Israeli cinema with hits like The Troupe and Dizengoff 99 (both 1979). In 1985, Rage and Glory, Nesher’s film about the 1940s Israeli terrorist group the Stern Gang, caused massive controversy and the level of hysteria prompted him to leave for Hollywood. Feeling unconnected to American social issues, Nesher opted for a career as a director of old school B-movies and turned out titles like Timebomb (1991), starring Michael Biehn, and the Drew Barrymore vehicle Doppelganger(1993) throughout the 1990s. In 2003, he returned once again to Israel where he immediately reestablished himself as a critical favorite with the 60s-set crowdpleaser Turn Left at the End of the World (2004), one of the biggest Israeli box office hits of the past two decades, and the experimental political documentary Oriental (2004).

With his latest film, The Secrets, Nesher continues his current focus on Jewish identity, and once again shows a tendency to deal with provocative material.

It was co-written with polarizing female playwright and stand-up comedian Hadar Galron…

The Secrets is available on Amazon Prime as well as at YouTube, where several others can also be found.

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