Film and TV

Oh, Jerusalem!

By their very nature, fundamentalist religions demand conformity. Original thought and personal aspirations are subordinated to duty and ritual as prescribed by scripture -- be it the Bible, the Koran or the Torah. Members who do not strictly adhere to the precepts of the faith are ostracized, shunned, even expelled.

In Kadosh, Israeli filmmaker Amos Gitai (Devarim, Yom Yom) examines one such world, that of ultra-Orthodox Judaism. The film, in Hebrew with English subtitles, is set in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish quarter of Jerusalem and concerns the plight of two sisters, Rivka and Malka, who are constrained by the demands and expectations of their uncompromisingly conservative and regimented faith. Within this patriarchal society, women and girls are relegated to the role of second-class citizens.

Rivka (Yaël Abecassis), the elder of the two, has been blessed with a happy marriage to Meir (Yoram Hattab), but after ten years together the couple is still childless. To the ultra-Orthodox, the primary purpose of marriage is to have children, thus ensuring the continuation of Judaism; failure to achieve this goal is considered sufficient grounds for dissolving the union. Despite Rivka and Meir's obvious love for one another, the rabbi, who also happens to be Meir's father, urges his son to abandon Rivka and take another wife. The couple is torn between duty to their faith and community and their personal desire to remain together.

Malka (Meital Barda) faces a similar, equally painful, dilemma. She is in love with Yaakov, a rock singer who has left the community for a secular life and who wants her to join him. But bound by her own strong sense of religious obligation and her respect for her parents' wishes, she has consented to an arranged marriage with the crude, insensitive, ostentatiously pious Yossef (in this society, as in many tradition-bound cultures, all marriages are arranged).

Kadosh, which means "sacred" in Hebrew, examines the emotional and psychological toll that this form of Judaism -- and, by extension, all fundamentalist religions -- takes on women. A secular Jew and primarily a documentary filmmaker, Gitai presents his story in exceptionally lengthy takes, with little or no camera movement within the shots and long stretches of silence. The pace is deliberately slow. There are few cutaways; three- and four-minute scenes frequently play out in one or two wide shots. Nor is there much activity within the frame. Whether due to piety or modesty, the characters themselves are physically contained, even submissive. They make no overt physical gestures, as if fearful of calling attention to themselves (the exception is Yossef, whose histrionics when praying verge on the exhibitionist).

The film's slow, methodical, almost still-life approach to its subject is appropriate, and the actors cannot be faulted. But the film is too one-sided to invite audience sympathy or even viewer engagement with the characters. In ultra-Orthodox Judaism, women are lower-class citizens whose prescribed role is to bear children and to maintain a well-run household so that the husbands may go off and study the Torah all day. Meir's morning prayer even ends with the phrase "Blessed is our eternal God who has not created me as a woman."

Abhoring the misogyny on display is easy. But it's not enough, not even if the film is intended as a flat-out indictment of religion. What woman in her right mind would condemn herself to such an existence? Yet Rivka and Malka do. There must be some positive aspects to the religion or at least some reason why the sisters acquiesce. Does it offer some sense of peace or historical continuity? In regulating every aspect of life, does it provide a form of security, absolving the individual of responsibility for making her own decisions?

The portrait that Gitai and co-writer Eliette Abecassis present is unremittingly grim, unrelentingly depressing; there is no joy anywhere. (The men fare no better than the women; they are presented as either weak and passive or brutish and arrogant.) As a result, the audience doesn't want to get involved in the story. Yes, the film enrages, but it's a nasty, twisting feeling, not a sympathetic or cathartic one. You want to simply wash your hands of the whole affair.

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Jean Oppenheimer