As The Secrets begins, we meet Naomi (Ania Bukstein), the whip-smart daughter of a powerful ultra-orthodox rabbi, who decides to attend a Midrasha rather than agree to the pre-arranged marriage to her father's banal protÃ©gÃ©, Michael (Guri Alfi). We sense early on, Naomi's strong sense of female-assuredness that is certain to eventually clash with the impracticalities of traditional Jewish convention.
One student Naomi meets at school is the rebellious spirit Michelle (Michal Shtamler) who is a chain-smoking cynic, running from some sort of shady past in Paris. The two girls initially find little in common in fact rather despise each other - until they both begin to care for Anouk (Fanny Ardant), a beautiful but mysterious older lady with a terminal illness.
Based on Naomi's knowledge of the Kabbalah, the three women are soon breaking tradition and participating in a series of â"tikunim" or rituals, that the trio hope will cleanse Anouk of her sins before she dies. We learn that Anouk had recently spent time in prison for a crime of passion; so naturally, her inclusion in the story sprinkles the proceedings with an interesting moral conundrum. One particular scene takes place in a sacred cleansing pool and is one of the most moving moments in the film. Because these rituals stretch the borders of normal Jewish law, the women must hide their actions from the school's headmistress, which proves to be quite challenging since some involve a certain degree of self-mortification.
Through their closeness with Anouk, Naomi and Michelle's relationship unexpectedly turns romantic. But Naomi finds nothing in the scriptures that forbids lesbian love, only that male homosexuality is banned, so the two allow their relationship to blossom. The film could have taken a turn for the overly-melodramatic worse here were it not for the believability of the relationship between Bukstein and Shtamler's characters. The two women display a strong passion for each other that is unexpected yet convincing. The same emotions were what sold Brokeback Mountain to a confidingly skeptical audience.
The Secrets plays as both a convincing argument against the outdated traditional Jewish practices and as a sentimental star-crossed love story. But Nesher's skillful hand as director and the convincing performances of the lead actresses allow both halves of the film to peacefully coexist without becoming overly schmaltzy.
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