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Testing religion's boundaries in The Secrets
Womanly devotion
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The Secrets is very sad and not a little hopeless.
The Secrets is very sad and not a little hopeless.

The Secrets begins with a prayer. Standing at her mother's grave, Naomi (Ania Bukstein) reads, "Give me insight into thy righteousness." The request proves not merely rhetorical. Naomi's life is about to be torn apart over the question of what God wants, and in particular what God wants for women in the very religious, very conservative slice of Israel where Naomi lives.

The Secrets, directed and co-written by Avi Nesher, is a moving, quietly angry film. At the heart of it is Bukstein's remarkable performance as a young woman so devoted to her religious studies that she rattles off Jewish law as effortlessly as the rest of us talk about the weather. But for ambitious women like Naomi, religious studies have their limits. At one point her rabbi father (Sefi Rivlin) reads, "Women: How do they earn a place in heaven? By sending their sons to synagogue."

Even in her religious devotion, Naomi is sly. She is unhappily engaged to a dour, condescending young man (Guri Alfi), and she is able to postpone the marriage by convincing pious old Dad to let her study at the women's seminary in Safed, the city in northern Israel. Since the 16th century Safed has been a key center for the Jewish mystic tradition of Kabbalah, which was important even before Lindsay Lohan began her dabblings.

As a seminarian Naomi shines. More than that, she is stirred by the views of the headmistress (Tiki Dayan), who talks of a "silent revolution" for women. One day, she says, there may even be a woman rabbi. But soon Naomi is distracted from her studies by two new acquaintances: a late-arriving roommate, French-raised Michelle (Michal Shtamler), who wears chic sunglasses and smokes Marlboros; and Anouk (Fanny Ardant), a sad-eyed, middle-aged Frenchwoman who is dying of cancer. It is said Anouk killed her lover, and she has come to Safed for spiritual renewal.

Though they don't much like each other in the beginning, Naomi and Michelle are sent together to look after Anouk. At first there is strain between the three women, not least because Anouk speaks only French, Naomi only Hebrew, and (in an ultimately tedious gimmick) Michelle translates between them.

Eventually Michelle seizes on an idea: Naomi should use her religious knowledge to devise healing rituals for Anouk. What follows is a remarkable series of scenes. In the library Naomi studies Kabbalah late into the night as Michelle snoozes nearby. The young women bring Anouk to various holy sites, where Naomi - who believes women can indeed be rabbis - conducts rituals that are stirring, mysterious. Naomi practices mortification of the flesh by wearing burlap, which leaves her chest a bloody mess.

And in a beautifully low-key moment, Naomi and Michelle become lovers. Afterward Michelle is horrified. Naomi cites a scriptural loophole allowing lesbians - though that word is never uttered in this world, where instead people speak of what is normal and what is not. Naomi proposes an uneasy future together.

It's all very sad and not a little hopeless. There are lighter moments, though, as when Michelle's other love interest, a kindly klezmer musician (Adir Miller), gets a tablecloth caught in his fly - a reliable bit of physical comedy at least as old as the Talmud.

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