Naomi (Ania Bukstein), the stubborn heroine of "The Secrets," a religious soap opera and feminist cri de coeur, is the brilliant, headstrong daughter of an Orthodox Israeli rabbi (Sefi Rivlin). Exceptionally well schooled in Jewish law, she is so close to her father that she has shed no tears over the recent death of her mother.
The movie was directed by the Israeli filmmaker Avi Nesher from a screenplay he wrote with Hadar Galron, a London-born feminist playwright, actress and Orthodox Jew.
At first, it is a sober exploration of limited female opportunities in a rigidly patriarchal environment. But after two French characters are introduced, the movie becomes an intriguing hybrid of austere Israeli and voluptuous French filmmaking traditions.
As the film begins, Naomi entreats her father to postpone her marriage to his protégé Michael (Guri Alfi) so she can pursue her religious studies. Her dream is to become the first female Orthodox rabbi.
Digital Access for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
Once Naomi enters the seminary, whose headmistress shares her dream but advises patience, "The Secrets" metamorphoses into a romantic tearjerker. Naomi's arrogance and rigidity begin to break down when she forms a friendship with her Parisian roommate Michelle (Michal Shtamler).
Their initially embattled relationship changes after the two are assigned to take food to Anouk (Fanny Ardant), a dying woman with a scandalous past who lives near the seminary.
A raven-haired pariah, Anouk spent 15 years in prison for killing her lover, an Israeli painter for whom she had abandoned her husband and two children. When she shows Naomi and Michelle some of her lover's erotic paintings, in which she is the subject, the young women turn away. To them, the notion of a woman's abandoning herself to such passion is almost inconceivable.
Anouk, who is not Jewish, begs Naomi and Michelle to lead her through a series of Kabbalistic cleansing rites that are available only to Jews.
As Anouk's strength ebbs, their sessions with her become a spiritual rescue mission with a deadline.
While Michelle visits Naomi during the Jewish holidays, the two friends almost accidentally become lovers. Naomi, consulting sacred texts, determines there is no law against lesbian love, that homosexuality is taboo only for men, who spill their seed.
As "The Secrets" moves away from cultural barriers and becomes a star-crossed love story, it risks becoming mawkish.
But the passionate performances of Bukstein, Shtamler and Ardant lend "The Secrets" enough emotional solidity to prevent it from entirely dissolving in the suds.