Fresh from the Jewish Film Festival, Avi Nesher’s The Secrets starts a theatrical engagement this Friday at the Reading Gaslamp. (Not to be confused with the singular A Secret, also Jewish-themed, that played there in December.) Nesher, a name unfamiliar to me, has a list of schlocky straight-to-video Hollywood credits with titles like Raw Nerve, Mercenary, Savage, Doppelganger, and Timebomb. But this one he made in his native Israel, collaborating on the screenplay with Hadar Galron, an orthodox-Jewish feminist playwright — a contradiction in adjectives — based in London. The result would seem to be, although maybe the schlock deserves a closer look, a testament to what can happen when making an honest effort. More than a testament: a monument.
Prefaced by the cheesiest-looking studio logos you would ever want to see, it immediately homes in on a young Israeli named Naomi (Ania Bukstein, looking like an earlier Rachel Weisz, and acting with a singeing ardor), the academically advanced daughter of a fundamentalist rabbi, pledged in marriage to his stern protégé, but in the wake of her mother’s death securing a postponement of the wedding to study the Talmud at a seminary for women — a midrasha, as distinct from a yeshiva — in the holy city of Safed, ancient seat of the kabbalah. Hardly has she settled in with two congenial roommates, who have come to the midrasha as much for the matchmaking talents of the directress as for her teaching, than the sanctuary is invaded by a latecomer from France named Michelle (the kittenish Michal Shtamler), who co-opts the dormitory’s only operable window to accommodate her smoking habit. Michelle, sent there in part for disciplinary reasons, is something of a rebel. But Naomi is something more, a revolutionary, one whose devoutness transports her to an imagined future of female rabbis. Cigarettes can’t hold a candle to her inner flame.
The two young women are instantly at odds, but at the order of the directress they are united on errands of mercy to the house of an outcast French expatriate and ex-convict (the regularly magnificent Fanny Ardant, more magnificent than usual), said to have murdered her artist lover, and now dying two kinds of death, from heart disease and cancer. Her wish to know God and obtain absolution before the end is more than the ambitious Naomi can resist. With Michelle needed for translation to and from the French, Naomi taps all of her knowledge of the esoteric sacred texts — those harbor a certain sort of “secrets,” but the dying woman possesses her own sort — to devise a custom-made program of restitution, a tikun, that bends the boundaries of received doctrine: crashing the men’s bathhouse after hours, for instance, for a ritual purification known as a mikvah. The nakedness in that scene, while it preserves the modesty of the aging Ardant, signals graphically that the film itself, respectful as it is of Jewish orthodoxy, is not a slave to piety. And we are not surprised, even if we might forget for a moment to breathe, when the tightening bond between the young women turns carnal. (Brilliant use of intermittent blackouts, so that the passion progresses in stages, and you can never be sure when the limit has been reached.) Nor are we surprised that the resourceful Naomi can adduce no divine sanction against this relationship as there is against that between seed-spilling men. Lesbians get the green light.
The twists and turns of the storyline are too plentiful to be spoiled by the revelation of that one. It’s a story of feminism and sisterhood in an exotic culture with specific obstacles and specific personalities to negotiate them. The logic of it can pass as the logic of destiny, the bringing together of these people in this place for this purpose, to carve out a life path that diverges from the path that had been charted, a twisty, turny one in place of a paved straightaway. (I haven’t even mentioned the endearing klezmer clarinettist who crosses, and alters, the path.) To say it a different way, the logic of it can pass as an object lesson in the art of fiction. This is how the trick is supposed to be done, one thing leading inexorably to another with step-by-step credibility, cumulative implication, climactic impact. It fascinates and illuminates.
Landmark’s La Jolla Village opens its own very good movie this Friday, The Class, a free adaptation of François Bégaudeau’s nonfiction chronicle of a single year of teaching French, or trying to teach it, to a group of restive fourteen- and fifteen-year-olds at a melting-pot public school in a rough district of Paris. Bégaudeau essentially — and needless to say, convincingly — plays himself on screen, under the fictitious monicker of M. Marin, and the students are nonprofessionals chosen with no eye to beauty and glamour, but a sensitive eye to a variety of shapes and shades.
The reliable name of Laurent Cantet, best known for Time Out and Heading South, has directed the piece with standardized documentary affectations — an air of improvisation, a raw digital image, a bobbing camera and floating frame, no background music — and the teaching sessions are far less compressed than in the typical school film of minute-and-a-half classes and saved-by-the-bell. (Many of the nuances of language and accent are unavoidably lost in the English subtitles.) The circle of action is strictly confined to the school grounds, and any parents who enter into the picture must come to campus to do so. There is no continuous story arc, although the disciplinary proceedings against a chair-rocking troublemaker from Mali become the focus of the final stretch. By then we have gotten to know a few of the students quite well, while others are still getting noticed for the first time. It all feels irrefutably and exasperatingly real; and the teacher, a youthful figure given to Socratic sparring with his charges, wins our admiration for his equanimity under the constant stress. A misunderstood use of the word “skank” (as it is translated) in class discussion can be readily pardoned. For all that, the drawback of the rigorously realistic movie is that it seldom adds up to more than the sum of its parts. This isn’t the exception.
The Oscar nominees for animated and live-action shorts have been gathered into segregated programs with separate admissions at the Ken Cinema beginning Friday, roughly an hour and a half each. (The animated program has had to be plumped up with a few bonus shorts.) If you attend before Sunday evening, you can experience them in innocence of the winners.