Yes, this is about lesbian yeshiva girls; yes, there is some hot action; yes, the actresses themselves are sexy. But, in the best Horatian tradition (“delight and instruct”), there is plenty of instruction hiding behind the sensationalist delight.
But Avi Nesher’s “The Secrets” is no sordid potboiler with a couple of redeeming insights. Although only released on DVD in America this week, it has been out for a couple of years, and in 2007 it garnered 8 nominations for Israel Film Academy Awards.
The reasons for its critical success are the reasons it can be accused of melodrama: It takes shortcuts to framing its questions about how to use and go beyond a tradition that ends up by oppressing people.
Noemi (Ania Bukstein), a Torah genius and favored daughter of a respected rosh yeshiva, chooses to go to a yeshiva in Safed when her mother dies — thus, leaving her arranged fiancée at home. She chooses a teacher committed to female education, but whose belief in the ordination of women is tempered by her accommodation of the male-led yeshivas.
At the yeshiva she meets Michel (Michal Shtamler), who has been forced to leave France for some unexplained misdemeanor. The two of them are placed together and, through helping Anouk (Fanny Ardant) — an act of charity to which they are first assigned and subsequently compelled to complete — they find each other.
Through Anouk the two girls champion new ways to embrace and further tradition for the benefit of all three of them. The film compares different ways of using and going beyond tradition: the possible continuities with the past and the dangerous need for rupture.
The exposition needs to be minimal to have time to ask the same question about tradition and development in several different ways. Love, marriage, death, forgiveness, sex (straight, lesbian, brutal bondage), murder, sexism, betrayal — all are dumped on the audience in constant succession, and it is a credit to the cast and the writing that the movie maintains credibility.
Perhaps the most pivotal character is Yanki (Adir Miller) because he represents the acceptable face of the status quo. A friendly young orthodox Jewish man, he is both friend and enemy, art and religion, tradition and a sort of progress. In Judaism, development doesn’t happen by spectacular triumph over evil it happens by changing the mundane. The film doesn’t finally commit to the victory of these young women, but at least it shows them in the real world of the mundane: vital, engaged and human.