The year 2000 approaches in Jerusalem's Orthodox Mea Shearim quarter, where the women work, keep house, and have children so the men can study the Torah and the Talmud. Rivka is happily and passionately married to Meir, but they remain childless. The yeshiva's rabbi, who is Meir's father, wants Meir to divorce Rivka: "a barren woman is no woman." Rivka's sister, Malka, is in love with Yakov, a Jew shunned by the yeshiva as too secular. The rabbi arranges Malka's marriage to Yossef, whose agitation when fulfilling religious duties approaches the grotesque. Can the sisters sort out their hearts' desires within this patriarchal world? If not, have they any other options?Written by
The scene where Yossef the zealot prays loudly for understanding the Torah is completely preposterous. An Orthodox Jew would always pray silently, even when alone. To pray in such a boorish manner would only invite ridicule. See more »
The "Making of" featurette shows several scenes cut from the movie, including one of Rivka preparing a meal. See more »
Gritty, realistic indictment of religious fanaticism among the ultra-orthodox Chasidic Jews of the Mea Shearim section of Jerusalem, a place so extreme that women are stoned for daring to go sleeveless, cars stoned if driven on the sabbath. The film's exceptionally deliberate, slow pacing and ascetic economy steadily build an unbroken, smoldering, muted intensity, which, along with the fact that it offers a rare, highly detailed glimpse into an insular world, is probably why this modest production was the first from Israel to be accepted for screening at Cannes in 25 years.
The dramatic structure is simple, symmetric: two sisters, one forced out of, the other into marriage, dramatize the severe oppression of this fundamentalist sect. Woman's only function is to procreate, to furnish the legions who will overrun the sect's enemies. In his morning devotions the husband thanks god for not making him a woman. Kadosh, which means sacred or holy, is here used scathingly, bitterly ironically.
The personal needs of the individual--love, privacy, self-determination--are pitted against the demands of society, an old theme. Though this particular sect is unusual, downright medieval, in its absolute adherence to the letter of the law, it is not unlike in kind, if not degree, fundamentalism everywhere else. All fundamentalists view sex with suspicion and dread, all strive to restrict it. Femininity is uniformly degraded, regarded as inherently unclean, the devil's work.
The film's only misstep, the death, occurs at the very end, but it weakens the credibility of everything that preceded it. Though its justice is poetic, its unlikelihood and obvious appeal to emotion belie the restrained realism of the rest of the film, jumping out like an editorial intrusion in a factual documentary, striking as false a note as magic realism would have in this context. It made wonder about the politics and intent of writer-director Gitai.
The majority of Israeli's do not cast a dispassionate eye on their Chasidic brethren. The ultra-orthodox wield a disproportionate power over the life of Israel by virtue of their crucial swing vote in a fragmented multiparty system. Just as no Republican can hope to secure a presidential nomination without the backing of the Christian Right, even though it accounts for only 15% of the GOP, so to no Prime Minister can be elected in Israel without the support of the fundamentalists of Mea Shearim. Because of this they are able to inflict on the nonsectarian majority their sectarian laws concerning the observance of the sabbath, dietary restrictions, divorce, etc., in addition to refusing to participate in the universal military draft. The divisions are deep and rancorous. The purposes of Kadosh may be overly specific, vengeful, political. Though opposite, it may be as drastic as what it condemns. The Chasids, particularly the Rabbi and groom-to-be, are portrayed as authoritarian ogres.
Whatever its faults, however, at least it deals with fundamentalism on a more level playing field than two fundamentalist films released recently, The Straight Story and Color of Paradise, which by no small coincidence were shown in the very same theater. Unlike the latter two, a least it doesn't hold out false promises, hide a sinister heart behind a smiling face. Not surprisingly, the theater was practically empty, as opposed to being nearly full for the other two, escapist, vehicles. (If I were a fundamentalist, mightn't it be too easy to deride film as corrupt, the enjoyment of Philistines?)
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