A careful historical reconstruction of a bygone era in which Jews and Arabs co-existed peacefully in Jerusalem, Moshe Mizrahi’s new film, “Women,” is an enchanting tale of polygamy that was sanctioned by religious tradition. A strong central performance by Michal Bat-Adam, as a bright, pious, self-sacrificing woman, and authentic ambience of time and place compensate for a slight, often slow-moving narrative that would have made a great short. Result is an enjoyable film that should definitely be included in the next Israel Film Festival in the U.S. and perhaps even get a limited theatrical distribution in cities that have large Jewish and Israeli communities.
Set against the luxuriant backdrop of a magical Jerusalem at the turn of the century, “Women” is the closest thing moviegoers are ever likely to see of a Judaic version of that uniquely French concept, menage a trois. Startling, if simple, tale centers on Rebecca (Bat-Adam), devout and loving wife of Jacob (Amos Lavi), a respected Sephardic rabbi well versed in the cabala. After 15 years of blissful marriage, Rebecca feels shehas failed her husband and her duties as a wife because she has been unable to bear him any children.
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Jacob doesn’t seem to mind, but the strong, highly determined Rebecca suffers deeply; she’s also the subject of gossip and criticism from her mother-in-law and other members of the community. In a self-sacrificing manner, Rebecca comes up with an original if unconventional solution, a virginal 18-year-old orphan to wed her husband and provide him with a son.
Initially reluctant, the husband gives in when he realizes that Rebecca is motivated by selfless love and genuine religious conviction. Nonetheless, as soon as the wedding is over, complications ensue when members of the unorthodox triangle try to perform their expected duties. Human nature being what it is, the generous, bighearted Rebecca is slowly transformed into an overly sensitive, insecure and jealous woman who can’t tolerate seeing her husband smitten by his younger, more beautiful wife.
Director Mizrahi must have realized that the story is extremely modest, for he has smartly chosen to focus on a meticulous re-creation of the era, with detailed attention to Jewish mores in the Old City of Jerusalem: the elaborate meals, the preparations for the sabbath, the segregation of men and women in synagogues, the lively marketplace, the exquisite wedding ceremonies.
With 14 features to his credit, including the Oscar-winning “Madame Rosa,” starring Simone Signoret, Mizrahi has devoted his career to a celebration of the largely neglected Sephardic tradition. While “Women” is one of his more handsome and technically polished films, it lacks the visual style to make it a truly enchanting fairy tale.
Still, Mizrahi should be commended for going against the grain of current Israeli and European movies, and for reportedly waiting 25 years for his wife, distinguished actress Bat-Adam, to be the right age to play the older wife, which she does magnificently. English subtitles are adequate, though pic sounds better in Hebrew, as a good portion of the clever dialogue is in verse.