Lilith Unfair

Although beautiful to look at, this Israeli film can't manage to say much

This just in: Religious fundamentalism can be oppressive to women! That's the less than startling message in the Israeli film Kadosh, which manages to draw out its obvious point for nearly three hours of monotony. Despite some solid performances and lovely visuals, Amos Gitai's latest effort can't overcome its static, simplistic point or its comatose pace. After sitting through this film, snail racing sounds downright thrilling.

The distress signals are evident from the first shot. In Mea Shearim, the Orthodox Jewish quarter of Jerusalem, the devout Talmudic scholar Meir rises to dress in traditional garb, pausing for frequent prayer in a procedure strictly prescribed by Jewish law. This careful ritual takes several minutes of screen time as the stationary camera observes every detail in one long shot. It's an interesting way to begin a film about rituals and how they can comfort and oppress, but it's also a precursor of what director Gitai intends: a detailed fly-on-the-wall look at the secret world of the Hassidim.

Former documentarian Gitai clearly is comfortable depicting social behavior. Unfortunately he's severely lacking in basic dramatic tools. Gitai's film takes a rare look into ultra-Orthodox Judaism, a community so traditional and conscientious that a discussion about how to make tea on the Sabbath results in a complex theological argument. This traditional world seems apart from modern time. No advertisements are to be seen on the claustrophobic cobblestone streets. No televisions, radios, or modern conveniences are on view in the houses. All behavior -- familial, religious, social, and sexual -- is enjoined by religious law and overseen by zealous elders.

Yael Abecassis is trapped in an ultra-Orthodox life and a very long film
Yael Abecassis is trapped in an ultra-Orthodox life and a very long film

In this rigid universe live two sisters, Rivka, Meir's childless wife, and the unhappy Malka, who has just been paired with the devout but plodding Yossef, even though she loves handsome, brooding Yaakov, an iconoclastic folksinger. Rivka loves Meir and her marriage and predicts that her sister also will find joy in married life. Soon, though, Meir's father, the head rabbi, is urging him to abandon Rivka after ten years of childless wedlock, grounds to dissolve the union according to traditional Jewish law. Meir resists at first but eventually casts Rivka away, though he loves her dearly. She takes a single room and, heartbroken, becomes a recluse. Meanwhile Malka submits to marriage to Yossef, whose approach to wedding-night lovemaking careens from the medical to the brutal. Soon Malka is seeking out Yaakov for comfort and tenderness.

The struggle over a woman's place in Judaism stretches back to the tale of Lilith, who, according to lore, was Adam's first wife. When she demanded sexual satisfaction from him (in some variations she wants to be on top during intercourse), Adam complains to God, who promptly expels Lilith and creates a more compliant woman, Eve, to be Adam's wife. Some scholars have concluded that Lilith, lurking in the trees after her disposal, became the serpent in later versions of the story.

There's nothing as dramatic or dynamic in Kadosh, but the conflict of female identity and male power is at the heart of this simple, touching story line. Despite some solid potential, however, Gitai seems almost purposeful in finding ways to sabotage his material. The most glaring weakness is a decided lack of character development. Sure, Rivka turns from happy wife to sorrowful outcast, but she takes no action until the film's final scene, choosing to suffer instead.

In fact none of these characters is given much to do except try to deal with their religion's strict laws and commandments. Meir fares worst. We are set up at first to empathize with him, because he adores Rivka and wants to do what is right. His struggle to reconcile his feelings with religious obligations clearly is effective. But when he opts to obey his father and dump his wife, he falls out of the story. He's not an individual with a problem anymore; he's just a pawn in a game we already have figured out. There's no escape from the zero-sum game this film sets up: One either obeys the law or is expelled from the community. All resistance is crushed. This situation never changes in the story and no one, including the audience, can expect it to. So what's left to find out? Lacking much explicit conflict, suspense, surprise, or dramatic action, this is decidedly inert storytelling.

This film also suffers from some terrible pacing. Scene after slow-paced scene drags the story along in a series of weary, sorrowful dialogues separated by brief exterior sequences as one character or another walks through picturesque old Jerusalem. The talk-walk-talk structure is so monotonous that whatever empathy Gitai builds for his characters is squandered on flabby pacing. There is a full hour of unnecessary screen time, extralong takes (some are four or five minutes or longer), and long shots of people walking in the streets, to no particular effect.

These flaws are especially annoying because this film has definite virtues, chiefly some affecting performances, anchored by Yael Abecassis as Rivka and Meital Barda as her sister Malka. In one scene Malka, now a wife, must cut off her long hair. Standing before a mirror, she begins snipping with her scissors. At first she's hesitant, then determined, then suddenly breathless with giddy glee, and then just as suddenly she's fearful. As the enormity of her fate falls upon her, she shudders, choked with sobs. Barda is terrific in this scene, one of those three-minute shots that really pays off.

Another plus is the painterly, luminous camerawork of cinematographer Renato Berta, the European maestro who has lensed for just about every auteur imaginable: Fassbinder, Tanner, Godard, Rohmer, Rivette, Techine, Malle, Resnais -- you name 'em, he's shot for 'em.

Kadosh is Berta's third film with Gitai, and their close collaboration shows. Despite the drab, spare surroundings of the characters, Berta's use of light and shadow offers beauty in the ordinary. An onion, layered and juicy, is sliced in closeup. A platter of food sits steaming on a highly polished wood table, untouched, while Meir and Rivka sit apart, struggling with their emotions.

Still, even Berta merits a critical whack or two. His glowing compositions tend to emphasize this film's inertia. Characters look placed, posed before the locked down camera that rarely pans and almost never moves. The film seems suspended, like a fly in amber, all midrange shots and midrange focus. The emphasis is on observation, not revelation.

That might be this film's weakness in a nutshell. Gitai seems happy to record a series of events but doesn't manage to offer any insight or perspective. When Malka finally leaves her airless marriage, she walks out into the hills overlooking the city, headed for a future we know nothing of or care much about. She could and should have walked out in her first scene, sparing herself a lot of grief and us the torture of watching her suffer. What's the point of watching women get beat up? Gitai doesn't say.

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