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The year 2000 approaches in Jerusalem's Orthodox Mea Shearim quarter, where the women work, keep house, and have children so the men can study the Torah and the Talmud. Rivka is happily and passionately married to Meir, but they remain childless. The yeshiva's rabbi, who is Meir's father, wants Meir to divorce Rivka: "a barren woman is no woman." Rivka's sister, Malka, is in love with Yakov, a Jew shunned by the yeshiva as too secular. The rabbi arranges Malka's marriage to Yossef, whose agitation when fulfilling religious duties approaches the grotesque. Can the sisters sort out their hearts' desires within this patriarchal world? If not, have they any other options? Written by
There are some thoughtful and well-written reviews both at Amazon and the IMDb and elsewhere in which it is claimed that the type of Jewish Orthodoxy presented here is not accurate. There are quibbles about the unnatural way that Meir puts on his garments. There is criticism of the selection of prayers recited, especially Meir giving thanks that he was not born a woman.
Moreover, there is the assertion that orthodox Judaism does NOT require that a man repudiate his wife after ten years of marriage even though she may be barren. Furthermore, the character of Yossef is said not to be typical of orthodox Jewish men since he takes his wife sexually without love or tenderness, that he hits her when angry, and goes about the streets of Israel with a loudspeaker hawking his religious point of view.
First, it is a shame (if true) that the way Meir dressed and recited his morning prayers was inaccurate, because such details can easily be made accurate with some research. Certainly director Amos Gitai had access to many orthodox people who could have helped him. Putting that aside, the artistic point of the opening scene was to immerse the viewer into a world based on religious beliefs and practices that are strikingly different from the secular world of today. He also wanted to introduce his theme, which is that women in Orthodox Judaism, as in the other two great religions of the Middle East, in their fundamentalist interpretations--this bears repeating: in their fundamentalist interpretations--are not on an equal level with men.
Certainly in a realistic sense, Meir, since he dearly loves his wife, would have chosen something else to recite. However, I think we can give Gitai some artistic license here. The fact that such a prayer exits in the Jewish canon is not to be denied.
Second, the film does NOT claim that Orthodox Judaism requires that a man repudiate his wife after ten years of childless marriage. Instead it makes the very strong point that, from the point of view of Orthodox Judaism, such a woman is not fulfilling her role in society, and that there will be people outside the marriage who will try to persuade him to abandon her. Gitai's screenplay contains several textual pronouncements to that effect. The fact that Meir is torn between his love for his wife and his love for his religion is really the point. How he resolves that dilemma is an individual choice, and that is what the film shows.
As for the unflattering character of Yossef, whom Rivka's sister Malka is persuaded to marry (not forced, mind you, but persuaded) he is a foil and a counterpoint for the loving and deeply religious Meir. The fact that he is not a poster boy for Orthodox Judaism is not a valid criticism of the film, since all religions have their black sheep.
I think a fairer criticism of the film can be made by addressing the question of, was it entertaining and/or a work of art?
Here I have mixed feelings. Certainly the acting was excellent, and the theme a worthy one. Gitai's desire to show the underlying similarities among the conservative expressions of all three Abrahamic religions, through their shared patriarchal attitudes toward women and their estrangement from the postmodern world, was very well taken and appropriate. Where I think Gitai failed as film maker is in his inability to be completely fair to the orthodox way of life--his failure to show the joys as well as the sorrows of its everyday life which would help outsiders to understand why people adhere to such a way of life.
I also think that the film could have been better edited. In the documentary about how the film was made we see scenes that were cut that I think should have been retained, especially the scene in which the omelette was made and the scene in which the mother critiques the life choices her three daughters have made. Instead we have some scenes that ran too long. It is a fine technique that Gitai sometimes employs of letting the silence speak for the characters, of holding the camera on the scene to allow the audience to reflect and then to reflect again. However, I think this can be overdone and was overdone, and that judicious cutting of some of the scenes would have strengthened the movie.
Bottom line: a slow polemic of a movie that nonetheless is worth seeing because of the importance and timeliness of its theme, the originality of some of the techniques, and the fine acting, especially by Yael Abecassis who played Rivka and Meital Barda who played Malka.
One more point: yellow subtitles, please!
(Note: Over 500 of my movie reviews are now available in my book "Cut to the Chaise Lounge or I Can't Believe I Swallowed the Remote!" Get it at Amazon!)
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