Charting the sexual and religious tribulations of two Orthodox Jewish couples in the ultraconservative Mea Shearim district of Jerusalem, the Israeli drama Kadosh (Sacred) was among the most popular and highly praised entries in the recent Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival. It was also one of the most controversial--and so it remains. "[Kadosh] is the latest effort to utterly and outrageously demean an entire religious community, Orthodox Jews," wrote Rabbi Avi Shafran in an American Jewish World article that, according to representatives of U Film Society, has kept local Jewish audiences in heated discussion from the film's first festival screening. (The movie has since opened at U Film for an indefinite run.) "Every religious man in the film is either heartless, brutal, or a wimp," Shafran later argues, in addition to asserting that Kadosh inaccurately depicts several aspects of Orthodox life.
Surely no one, least of all the film's director Amos Gitaï, would contest the writer's basic point that Kadosh is a strong and highly contentious piece of work. "The film obviously takes a very critical stance of the autocracy and the hermetic sense of religious thought," Gitaï told me during a phone conversation a few months ago. Still, to say that the movie "demeans" Orthodox Jews seems akin to an ad hominem attack. As with other films directed by Gitaï (such as Field Diary, Berlin/Jerusalem, and Yom Yom), Kadosh allows its characters the space to say and do what they feel, and then delivers, through its style, a vivid commentary on their words and actions. Indeed, by making criticisms and presenting alternatives, Gitaï could be said to draw powerfully on Jewish tradition.
Like many of Gitaï's films (which number more than 30), Kadosh scrutinizes how the words and images of Judaism affect the most intimate behavior. As it begins, ultra-Orthodox sisters Rivka (Yaël Abecassis) and Malka (Meital Barda) are both having problems in their love lives. After ten years of marriage to Meir (Yoram Hattab), Rivka has not produced a child, and her husband, under the guidance of his rabbi (who tells him that God created Jewish women for two reasons--to give birth and to take care of the home), considers taking another wife. The same rabbi has forbidden the younger Malka from marrying her beloved, Yaakov (Sami Hori), because he has left the community to live a more modern life. Instead, the rabbi pins Malka to Yossef (Uri Ran Klausner), his faithful helper and a horrible bully.
The women react in different ways to the men's domination of their lives. Rivka remains eternally dedicated to her husband, no matter the lies he tells her. Malka, however, rebels. She protests how the men in their lives manipulate them while constantly evoking the Talmud, which she sees less as a holy text than as a historical artifact developed for the benefit of men. Slowly she moves away from the heart of Orthodoxy and toward--then beyond--Yaakov's adaptive, mystical Judaism. This school is associated more with the speculative kabala than the rigorous Talmud, and with houses of modern ritual such as the nightclub where Yaakov performs music as opposed to gender-segregated synagogues.
Not coincidentally, this is also the sort of Judaism with which Gitaï identifies. "For me, as a secular, 'nonreligious' Israeli," he told me, "the ritual that I relate to is a modern one. And I think that cinema often has a ritualistic element. You have a fetish, a very powerful fetish, and that is the camera. Sometimes it is too powerful. [The camera] moves, circling objects and human beings. In a way, that is what [religious] ritual was always about."
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