CHALLENGING THEMSELVES Crossing traditions in The Secrets.
In a larger new home and with its most impressive roster in years, the Maine Jewish Film Festival can already boast a successful 2010. Conveniently concentrated at the Nickelodeon this year (after the closing of its former base, the Movies on Exchange, led to an itinerant 2009), MJFF's thirteenth incarnation begins Saturday with an opening-night party at Greenhut Galleries, followed by a sold-out showing of Ajami, a tense crime drama that was recently nominated for the Best Foreign Film Oscar.
After that bold and important screening — the film not only tackles both blurry and distinct lines between Israelis and Palestinians, but was co-written and -directed by a Jew and Israeli Arab — other features explore political and identity crises regarding modern Jews through offbeat means. Here are a few worth checking out. Learn more at mjff.org.
From the beginning of THE SECRETS, an Israeli film that explores feminism, Orthodox Judaism, and sexuality, we know that main character Naomi (the lovely and serious Ania Bukstein) is different. She used to run around stroking her "beard" and professing her desire to attend rabbinical school, Naomi's sister reminds her at their mother's funeral. But of course, in Naomi's traditional world, a woman's place is not with books, but with babies — an opinion that her stodgy fiancé certainly holds. Still, to stave off the constrictive life (and to advance this movie's plot), she manages to convince her rabbi father to send her to a women-only seminary in Safed (the birthplace of Kabbalah) for one year.
There, Naomi meets Michelle (the equally stunning Michal Shtamler), a loose-cannon free-spirit to Naomi's tight-lipped bookworm. The two young women befriend Anouk, an older Frenchwoman (Fanny Ardant) who served a 15-year sentence for (allegedly) killing her artist lover, a man for whom she abandoned her family. Anouk is dying, and begs the girls to help her achieve pre-death deliverance from her torrid past.
The budding relationship between Naomi and Michelle, combined with their unsanctioned study and execution of religious rituals for the benefit of this mysterious stranger (who happens not to be Jewish), changes the women's worldviews. As their friendship transcends platonic borders (there's one somewhat steamy scene), both women have to consider their interpretations of love, lust, sexuality. They learn the limitations of their faith, and that self-realization comes from challenging those assumptions.
Israeli director Avi Nesher co-wrote The Secrets with feminist playwright Hadar Galron, and despite occasional soap-ishness, the movie offers a solid argument against status-quo, patriarchal spirituality. Without preaching, Bukstein, Shtamler, and Ardant offer emotional and surprising performances, and the viewer gets a glimpse into a slowly changing world.
The Secrets screens March 23 @ 7 pm at the Nickelodeon; preceded by an LGBT Film Forum reception at the SALT Institute for Documentary Studies (561 Congress St.) @ 5:30 pm.
A MATTER OF SIZE (March 21 @ 6 pm at Nickelodeon; March 24 at 7 pm at Bates College's Olin Arts Center in Lewiston) — Favorably compared to The Full Monty, Sharon Maymon and Erez Tadmor's comedy finds an overweight chef who still lives with his mother finding peace with a new hobby: sumo wrestling.