Running time 120 minutes
Written by Hadar Galron and Avi Nesher
Directed by Avi Nesher
Starring Ania Bukstein, Michal Shtamler, Rivka Michaeli
Avi Nesher’s the Secrets, from a screenplay (in Hebrew and French, with English subtitles) by Hadar Galron and Avi Nesher, unfolds as an engrossing mixture of voluptuous spirituality and incisive sensuality as it tells the story of two rebellious young Orthodox Jewish girls at a cabala seminary in Safed, where they risk opprobrium, disgrace and banishment by unexpectedly falling in love with each other in the midst of saving the soul of a mysterious French woman, who has left a French prison after having served a multiyear sentence for murdering her lover.
Noemi (Ania Bukstein) is the brilliant and pious daughter of an ultra-Orthodox rabbi, who expects her to marry his prize pupil, Michael (Guri Alfi), as soon as possible after the recent death of her mother, whom Noemi has mourned with increasingly morbid self-mortification. Somehow Noemi persuades her father to postpone the wedding for a year so that she can attend the cabala seminary at Safed presided over by Mrs. Meizlish (Rivka Michaeli). There Noemi meets a new French-speaking student named Michel (Michal Shtamler), who smokes incessantly despite the rules forbidding it, and who, when her roommates complain about the smoke, insists on keeping a window open even in the dead of winter.
One day Noemi and Michel are recruited to bring food to a needy and ill French woman in their midst. The woman, named Anouk (Fanny Ardant), a former convict and murderer in France, begs Noemi and Michel to help her find forgiveness in God’s eyes for her sins by teaching her all the necessary rituals. Noemi and Michel take pity on her, and agree to help, despite the displeasure of Mrs. Meizlish, who wishes to restrict the involvement of her two charges to simply delivering food for the woman’s sustenance.
Though the sympathies of Mr. Nesher and Ms. Galron are clearly with Noemi and Michel and the love they discover in each other, the writer-director and his co-screenwriter do not caricature the members of the male establishment who stand in the way of the feminist aspirations of Noemi and Michel. Still, one of the most intoxicating manifestations of the passion the two women share is the wildly uncontrollable laughter they engage in after their first “double date” with their respective fiancés, Noemi’s pompous Talmudic scholar Michael and Michel’s klezmer-playing musician Yanki (Adir Miller), who is made to feel frivolously inferior by the humorless Michael.
Nonetheless, the theological stature of Noemi’s father and Michael’s teacher, Rabbi Hess (Seffi Rivlin), is never undermined. And the sheer joy with which the young women in the cabala seminary perform religious rituals carries with it its own message of tolerance for sincere religious faith as a goal for secularists like me.
Even when there is a temporary parting of the ways for Noemi and Michel over the latter’s decision to marry Yanki, the prospective bridegroom makes an amazing and, as far as I know, cinematically unprecedented offer to Noemi, which culminates in a once-in-a-lifetime wedding celebration that alone would make the Secrets one of the most remarkable movies of the year.