I’ve just finished watching the Secrets, a film about women’s empowerment, shame, love, and orthodoxy.
The Secrets centers around the relationship between Naomi and Michelle during their brief stint at a Midrasha – an all-female seminary – in the holy city of Safed, Israel. Naomi is the daughter of a Rabbi and has spent most of her life studying the Kabbalah with her father. She is engaged to be married to a man who one day hopes to take her father’s place with his blessing, and who makes it clear that he thinks women are less intelligent and too emotional. When her mother dies from what is repeatedly implied as suicide or other complications related to chronic depression, she asks her father to postpone her wedding so that she may go to Midrasha. Once there she hopes to immerse herself in the sacred texts amidst other committed scholars and under the tutelage of a seemingly feminist head mistress who tells her students on the first day that faith that prevents women from studying or holding spiritual leadership positions is set up to discriminate against women and must be challenged to reflect the true equality of G-d. She tells them, that they can and should strive to be the first women Rabbis and break open the promise of their faith for everyone.
Michelle, on the other hand, is a French educated, chain smoking, problem child who has been exiled to the Midrasha by her father for getting into too much trouble at her last school. Michelle picks fights with the other girls regularly; one of her main targets is an “overweight” roommate who eats snacks incessantly all the while complaining about her figure. This roommate, pictured in the far right below, tries to heal wounds of rejection from her father with food, fearing that she will never be attractive enough to be loved by anyone. While the other girls are sympathetic to her needs as one reflection of their own, Michelle judges her and the rest of her peers as weak.
The Secrets/2007 movie still/dir. Avi Nesher
Michelle does make friends with the only other girl in the school who is not taking study seriously, pictured to the left above. They bond over being rebellious exiles in a provincial school. Their relationship soon ends when Naomi and Michelle are assigned to bring food to a dying French woman named Anouk. As they bond, their roommate is seen in the background becoming more confused and throwing herself into her studies to become the most legalistic devotee of orthodoxy in the school. In subtle scenes that mirror those of Lilies, a film about how the unrequited love a Catholic school boy for his fellow student leads to murder of his lover and destruction of his life, there is some implication that their friend sits in judgment of both Anouk and them for similar reasons.
As the film unfolds all of the women struggle with finding their own truth and the peace that it should bring them. Anouk is desperate to find forgiveness from G-d for adultery, participating in risque paintings, and “accidentally” killing her lover when he abandoned her but discovers that her real desperation is in finding acceptance for daring to let her heart rather than society rule. As her story unfolds, it becomes clear that much of her trials in life have been the result of sexism that expects women to stay in loveless marriages and contain their desires. Her sons abandon her because she left her marriage for her lover even tho she wants to and tries to continue parenting them. She is convicted of murder and shunned by the community, despite testifying that her lover slipped during a fight about him having used and abandoned her. There is no similar judgment for him for having seduced a married woman or painting her in the throws of passion. So her 10 year prison sentence seems more a punishment for defying patriarchal norms than actual guilt of murder.
When she begs for help making peace with G-d she is shunned by the Rabbis as a gentile and a fallen woman. Their disdain for her is so entrenched that the Rabbi threatens to close the Midrasha if the girls do not abandon her to die alone. The headmistress acquiesces on the surface, forbidding Naomi and Michelle from helping her but sends their two roommates to continue to bring her food. The decision acknowledges that the Rabbi’s anger is as much about the religious knowledge of the girls as it is about Anouk. It also attempts to continue including women who have chosen their own way without actually challenging the status quo, a strategy that will typify the headmistresses decisions throughout the film and calls into question liberal vs. radical feminism.
Anouk’s attempts to come to terms with her life and her faith open Naomi’s eyes to her own struggle to find her true voice. First, Anouk provides an opportunity for Naomi to take command of her vast knowledge of the Kabbalah and become the Rabbi her father has groomed her to be but denied her because she is “the wrong sex.” As the rituals of purification go on, Naomi begins to realize desires for her life and herself that she never knew were there. At first, she tries to discipline her body through prayer and pain, but one critical moment alone with Michelle makes that impossible.
The Secrets/2007 movie still/dir. Avi Nesher
The film’s focus on the struggle for freedom in the face of women’s oppression, does not end with easy answers. Anouk realizes that she is not sorry for following her heart even after all of the punishment and ostracism she has endured. That realization opens the door to Naomi articulating her own willingness to follow a path of study and sexuality that are both equally shunned by her orthodox community. Unfortunately, It also results in Naomi and Michelle being kicked out of school for defying gender norms and standing in solidarity with Anouk.
Their headmistress, who spoke so bodly about female empowerment that first day, expels them with claims of the “bigger picture” of ensuring the school stays open to one day educate the first female Rabbi. She tells the other girls not to follow in their footsteps. For all of her revolutionary talk, she not only undermines direct action but is also educating girls while helping to arrange marriages for the girls that will mean the end of their studies.
The Secrets/2007 movie still/dir. Avi Nesher
Some viewers will find the film’s ambivalent conclusions regressive or unsatisfying in a an era of queer films that take same sex desifre for granted. While it would have been nice to see the town feel shame for the shame they heaped upon Anouk, or to have the girls and their headmistress have a big ol’ feminist revolution, the film’s message of being true to oneself is a realistic one; it celebrates choice while warning that that truth may ultimately result in societal pressure and marginalization being heaped down on you for failing to be “a real woman.” It reminds us that their is empowerment in the struggle as much as their is when we triumph. More than that it also promises that following your own truth is where the real power for each of us in our lives lay and that the real suffering is in trying to shove oneself into a gender box designed to be too small and confining for most women in the world.
Despite the absence of a gender and sexual revolution at the end of The Secrets, there is no sympathy for compromise. iBoth Naomi and Michelle’s husband have dialogue that complicates any other interpretation, championing honesty and equality over everything else. Ultimately, some of the women choose conventional misery over punsihed freedom, some hope that mainstream choices will make them happy, and others dare to dream of that somewhere, where there is a place for us.
The pacing of The Secret may appear slow to some viewers, but its introspection allows each character, both major and minor, to be fully realized. Their relationships make sense because we watch them form. Every seemingly tangential moment is part of a larger picture of the choices these women will make and why. We see them measuring themselves not only against society but one another, including Naomi’s sister and dead mother. And as we watch them acting like carefree young girls amidst the intentionally cloistering set and the disappointments and compromises of the older women around them we cannot help but know their choices will be hard ones no matter what/who they choose to become. (This is not a movie about generational conflict, but rather one that shows two equally complex generations in which the younger one looks to the older one for the answers to where their choices may lead.)
The acting and the direction in The Secret is all solid. The story complex and layered while still keeping a youthful hopefulness throughout. It shies away from dichotomous thinking on any level, whether it is in presenting both good and bad men and women or allowing for choices about gender and sexuality that validate any number of choices. The questions it raises are still incredibly relevant to both orthodox and secular society as well. And at the end of it all, the two leads turn in compelling performances that will pull you into this world and hold you there until the very end.
This movie is available on DVD and Netflix.