TWINKLING ANGELS and avuncular Gods always find favorable treatment in the movies. But real religious practice, with its strictures and rituals, usually doesn't fare so well.
Kadosh, a celebrated new Israeli film, takes a typically harsh view of Orthodox Judaism. Created in an era of unprecedented hostility between Israel's religious and secular Jews, Amos Gitai's portrayal of two sisters in Jerusalem's Mea Sharim quarter—where the most observant Jews live cut off from the rest of society—offers an unrelentingly grim, even vindictive, picture of oppression and heartlessness.
Viewed as a realistic portrait of the insular Orthodox world, the film is grievously distorted, not to mention inaccurate with respect to Jewish law. Yet in its evocation of the conflict between our passions and our longing for the sacred, the film has a remarkable power that lifts it well above any petty political agenda.
directed by Amos Gitai
with Ya묠Abecassis and Meital Barda
runs March 24-30 at Egyptian
In long, meditative, single-shot scenes (the entire film has fewer cuts than a Mountain Dew commercial), Kadosh tells the story of Rivka (Ya묠Abecassis), whose 10-year marriage to Meir (Yoram Hattab) is blessed with tenderness, but not children. The community rabbi is trying to prevail upon Meir to divorce his wife and marry a younger woman. "Our struggle is sacred" (kadosh, in Hebrew), argues the rabbi, saying that the Orthodox must reproduce in order to overcome the "godless." Yet Meir wonders, "Isn't our bond a sacred commandment [too]?" Meanwhile, Rivka's younger sister Malka (Meital Barda) is also facing a conflict between the demands of her community and her heart as she finds herself pressured into an arranged marriage with a yeshiva loudmouth, despite her love for a gorgeous young stud from outside the community.
In the best parts of the film—scenes that are more silence than dialogue—we see Rivka and her devout husband struggling between their ardor for each another and their tormented sense that God has found fault with their union, that they are failing to uphold the most important way of serving Him—procreation. In truly brave performances, Abecassis and Hattab are at once frighteningly raw and deeply restrained as they pray, eat dinner, prepare to make love. (While Gitai made his name as a documentarian, Kadosh is nothing if not beautifully choreographed.)
Unfortunately the film does not dwell long enough in this tense ambiguity, turning headlong into unabating, and at times almost unwatchable, bleakness, as Malka's husband proves to be a hideous brute and Rivka soon finds herself banished and alone. The lyricism of Gitai's style—a naturalistic look combined with highly wrought, unnatural dialogue; long reaction shots accompanied by a gorgeous clarinet fugue—soon wears out its welcome, becoming portentous and repetitive.
Still, uncomfortable and unfair as it is, Kadosh manages to capture something about our highest aspirations that makes it impossible to dismiss and hard to forget.