An austere, methodical and quietly devastating portrait of two sisters for whom the inflexible tenets of ultra-Orthodox Judaism leave no options, “Sacred” examines a closed world of religious observance with a stern and ultimately damning eye. Fine perfs and a sociological/anthropological approach to emotionally charged territory make this a tough, resonant look at the impasse awaiting any Orthodox woman of child-bearing age who needs to be valued for more than her womb. Sure to spark fiery debate in Israel — where pic’s coolly voyeuristic and mostly unflattering portrayal of sex within Orthodox marriage is bound to be problematic for the community concerned — deliberately paced pic is a surefire conversation starter for fests and an arthouse possibility in select markets.
Infinitely more sober and pared-down than “A Price Above Rubies” and without a shred of the folksy joy, camaraderie or self-deprecating humor that often characterize stories populated with Jewish characters, it’s safe to say that Gitai’s narrative setup will not inspire any converts to Judaism as practiced in Mea Shearim, the ultra-Orthodox quarter of Jerusalem.
Meir (Yoram Hattab) rises early every morning to get in a full day of prayer. His dawn ritual of special garments, blessings and accouterments includes the scriptural slogan “Thank you, oh Lord, for not having made me a woman.” He and his wife, Rivka (Yael Abecassis), share a union based on love and respect, but they are childless after 10 years and the Talmud decrees that a woman without children may as well be dead. The rabbi is pressuring Meir to drop Rivka and marry a presumably fertile young woman named Haya. Torn between his love for Rivka and an uncompromising allegiance to his faith, Meir is too distraught to study and pray.
Rivka’s younger sister, Malka (Meital Barda), is slated to enter an arranged marriage with aggressively observant Yossef (Uri Ran Klauzner). Although Malka is in love with a handsome ex-yeshiva student named Yaakov (Sami Hori) and senses a wider world than cooking, cleaning and annual breeding, she is afraid of bucking tradition and goes through with the wedding.
When bombastic Yossef cannot give yearning, curious Malka the stimulation she craves on either the intellectual or physical front, her simmering indignation spills over into behavior that makes it impossible to remain in the only sphere she’s ever known.
Intimate lensing provides a glimpse of time-honored rituals —automatic gestures seen mostly as perfunctory rather than sacred or intrinsically meaningful — and often painful conversations fill in the rest. Argumentation always leads to a brick wall where the mortar is an unwavering belief in rigor, order and overpowering tradition.
Exteriors shot in Mea Shearim impart a slightly down-at-the-heels sense of place. Often plaintive, sometimes rhythmic score is perfectly dosed.