"World Cinema: Israel"

My book, "World Cinema: Israel" (originally published in 1996) is available from Amazon on "Kindle", with an in-depth chapter comparing and analyzing internationally acclaimed Israeli films up to 2010.

Want to see some of the best films of recent years? Just scroll down to "best films" to find listings of my recommendations.


Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Secrets, superstitions, and the shechinah

I am in Santa Barbara as a guest of the Israeli-Palestinian Film Festival at the Univ. of California Santa Barbara. The amazing part of this festival is the fact that it presented by a coalition of Jewish and Palestinian student groups, who have wisely chosen to present films that do not necessarily deal with the conflict but rather present images of both sides, adding a human dimension to the issues.

In addition to presenting an inter-active lecture for the students, I introduced Avi Nesher’s film, Secrets, and we had a lively discussion following. Do you remember the kabbalistic scene in the grotto? One student disagreed with my description of this ceremony as a pagan ritual. This scene, however, which is a climax for the narrative development, represents a clear statement by the filmmaker about superstitious rites and worship. In this scene, the four midrashah girls desperately attempt to cleanse the French woman (Fanny Ardent) of her sins.

One of the girls tells the others that she has chosen this grotto for this ceremony because it is the earliest site of monotheism, separating Judaism from pagan worship, bringing the viewer to contemplate the fine line between religious superstition and pagan worship. Yes, this is an exaggeration, since today ultra-orthodox Jews do not practice kabbalistic chants, intoning God's presence to cleanse a dying woman. But we still seek out God’s presence and we still have superstition in our lives. There are many superstitions in the film -- the kissing of doorposts every time someone enters a house, the murmuring of psalms in order alleviate someone's physical ailments, and the covering of mirrors in a house of mourning so that the reflection of the spirit of the newly departed cannot be seen. All of these superstitions are kept by religious Jews today – and by many not-so-religious Jews!

What about the title of the film? What are the "secrets" being hidden and sought after?

-- Within the ultra-orthodox community – evolving gender roles in this male-dominated world is a very well-kept secret.
-- The sins of the French woman and the kabbalistic attempt to cleanse her soul are kept secret.
-- The French woman is hiding the fact she is not Jewish.
-- The fact that the two girls develop a strong bond – they are hiding this love from others and from themselves.
-- A secret within the family setting – Naomi is hushed and not permitted to give voice to her memory of her mother’s unhappiness as a woman in the ultra-orthodox framework.
-- The presence of God -- the shechinah is hiding her face from those desperately seeking her.
The students here at UC Santa Barbara really loved the film.
Tonight, I am sharing the stage with Miri Talmon, who is teaching this year at the Univ. of Wisconsin. We'll both be introducing Jellyfish -- I'm sure that the sudents will love that one also!

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