I’m a masochist, so watching these movies is something of a ritual for me, though this year’s film selections are leaving me pretty hard-up for nice things to say about them. And one of the things that really irks me about queer films is that no matter how awful they are, queer reviewers always give them great marks. I refuse to participate in the circle jerk that comprises horrific gay cinema. For instance, I described the “film” 3Way as follows:
If MTV’s Real World impregnated Three’s Company, then thought better of it, the aborted fetus would be something akin to 3Way.
But last night I watched The Secrets (Ha-Sodot) which is perhaps the best lesbian movie I’ve seen to date. It’s phenomenal. Here’s my brief review of it, since it hasn’t been posted anywhere yet.
The Secrets (Ha-Sodot)
While one doesn’t often look for complex, erotically-charged lesbian cinema to be found inside the walls of a Jewish seminary in Israel, The Secrets (Ha-Sodot) is exactly that, and perhaps the most beautifully scripted, powerfully articulated lesbian movie to date. Naomi (Ania Bukstein) is the daughter of a prominent Rabbi, devoutly religious, stern and thick-skinned. She convinces her father to let her postpone her marriage to a dull rookie rabbi by letting her study in Safed, the birthplace of Kabbalah. While there, she meets Michel (Michal Shtamler), a head-strong girl from France whose unconventionality offends Naomi’s strict sensibilities. Reluctantly, they are assigned to work together to help an ailing woman, Anouk, (Fanny Ardant) achieve spiritual redemption for her crimes (killing her lover, S&M and modeling for dirty portraits are her main offenses).
Presented with a mixture of anguished delicacy, The Secrets is a haunting tale of discovery and passion, which deals obliquely with the reconciliation of women’s subjugated roles in Orthodox Judaism. The film deals in equal parts mysticism and eroticism, conformity and rule-breaking, with a build up between Naomi and Michel that’s as smoldering as it is tormenting.
Despite the tough questions the film raises surrounding women’s roles – both in society and in the sheets – The Secrets resists easy sentimentality and release. And though the lesbian relationship is central to the storyline, Secrets avoids the usual self-indulgent naval gazing typical to so many queer films.
While the film’s ending is bittersweet, Secrets is bracing and rapturous – a mental aphrodisiac that will hopefully not be overlooked at the fest because of its unorthodox take on Orthodox themes.