With an exotic Jewish subculture, a French star and a lesbian love affair, Avi Nesher’s “The Secrets” would appear to have all the art cinema demographic bases covered. Part of a stream of Israeli films treating the country’s Orthodox community with an alternately critical and sympathetic liberal-feminist point of view, drama about a group of Kabbalah students caring for an outcast is excessively overwrought and drawn out. Serious topics risk tilting into unintended comedy, and it’s unclear if the intended auds will tolerate the entire package, pointing to mixed commercial results.
As Naomi (Ania Bokstein) mourns her mother, she also is extremely wary of the prospect of marrying Michael (Guri Alfi), an off-putting, stern rabbinical student. Raised in the strictest possible religious climate by her father, Rabbi Hess (Sefi Rivlin), Naomi is an exceptionally gifted student of the Torah who, inconveniently, is female, and thus doomed to a purely domestic life under the culture’s hardline divisions of gender responsibilities.
She persuades her elders to send her to the Daat Emet seminary for women in the hilly burg of Safed, an ancient spot of reclusion for followers of mystical Judaism.
Unfortunately, because Nesher isn’t an especially interesting visualist, Naomi’s move to this otherworldly place of narrow cobble-stoned streets echoing with prayer chants and klezmer music isn’t the transporting film experience one would want.
Naomi settles in with roomies Sheine (Talli Oren), concerned mostly with her weight, and Sigi (Dana Ivgy), whose newness to the faith leads her to become an extremely fervent student. Wild card is new student Michelle (Michal Shtamler), fresh from Lyon and reeking of cigarette smoke and the kind of Gallic attitude that’s less borne out of character and more the stuff of cultural cliche by screenwriters Nesher and Hadar Galron.
The young women are assigned to deliver regular care packages to the mysterious and lonely Anouk (Fanny Ardant), a French woman who lives across the lane.
The secrets of the title soon come tumbling out in the form of Anouk’s colorful, erotic and tragic past. Certain that they have a fine candidate for a Tikkun, or cleansing ritual in the Kabbalistic practice, Naomi and Michelle guide Anouk through various exercises including immersion in a hot bath, which have the inadvertent result of getting the two young women all worked up about each other.
While their ensuing love affair may come out of their culture’s tendency to separate men from women — and women’s inevitable sense of solidarity with one another under such conditions — it simply doesn’t work in the film at hand, despite the best efforts of Bokstein and Shtamler in thoughtfully shaded perfs.
Several other pairings of characters are even less plausible.
Pic never seems to end, with Anouk’s drama pushed to the background and replaced by the Naomi-Michelle melodrama. Production is clean but cinematically undistinguished, with a certain tourist appeal to Safed location lensing.