Review of “The Secrets”

 
 

The Secrets is proof again — after The Edge of Heaven and The
World Unseen
— that lesbian drama can be done beautifully and poignantly,
without dipping into melodrama or heavy cliché. Directed by Avi Nesher, the
film follows two young, orthodox Jewish women who fall in love with one another
as they go to seminary school in the sacred Israeli city of Safed.

Warning: Minor spoilers

The movie opens on Noemi
(Ania Bukstein), a deadly serious, bookish young woman dealing with the death
of her mother and her engagement to the joyless, condescending Michael (Guri
Alfi). Eager to escape her particular lot, she enrolls in seminary school in
Safed, where she meets Michel (Michal Shtamler), the classic bad girl/rebel
(complete with a smoking habit, Euro attitude and disdain for the "backwater
town").

The pair room with the
feisty Sheine (Talli Oren) and Sigi (Dana
Ivgy) — the comic relief — and clash right from the get-go, setting up the
strong, opposites-attract chemistry that builds steadily through the picture.

From left to right: Dana
Ivgy
, Ania Bukstein, Michal Shtamler and Talli Oren

Unless otherwise noted, all photos by Eyal
Landesman

Soon, Noemi and Michel
are tasked with bringing food to a sick woman who lives nearby. Anouk (Fanny
Ardant) has quite a reputation — she did a stint in prison after murdering her
ex-lover, and is now dying from a combination of cancer and heart disease.
Michel’s heart goes out to Anouk, who begs the girls to help her make peace
with God (or G-D, as it appears in the subtitles).

Fanny Ardant

Photo credit: Marie Dorigny

While Noemi hesitates at
first, she eventually pours her heart and soul into devising increasingly
elaborate Kabbalah-inspired rituals (called tikkuns) to give Anouk a sense of
peace. The girls bond with her and each other on the spiritual quest, leading
to a passionate romance. Everything is complicated by the repressive world they
live in, which requires some aspects of their relationship to remain secret.

For a long time, Noemi
and Michel’s relationship rides the line between friendship and something much
deeper, a theme the filmmakers were wise to examine under the context of
religious society. The women are naturally affectionate with one another partly
because of their culture and its constant gender segregation. Everyone else
sees them as "good friends," despite the fact that their relationship
becomes quite physical behind the scenes.

Bukstein (top) and Shtamler

Like many queer films,
this rigid societal pressure is a central source of tension within the film.
Noemi is constantly reminded that her place in the world is defined by her
gender, and even the men who respect her treat her as something of an anomaly —
other women are more "light-minded." More striking is Michel’s
trepidation about taking their relationship to a more visible level — something
that simply isn’t done.

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