I don’t have much patience for fanaticism of any kind, but religious fanaticism particularly makes my skin crawl. (Had to leave some wriggle room there for fellow long-suffering Chicago Cubs fans…) Perhaps the most heinous shared characteristic of the Muslim Taliban in Afghanistan, our very own Southern Baptist evangelists, and the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community under the microscope in “Kadosh” — each a fanatically devout branch of one of the Big Three monotheistic religions — is a horrifying disregard bordering on derision for women. This exploration of womankind’s subjugation to a patriarchal society — and two women’s desperate search for an escape from the same — are the underlying themes of this grim film from Amos Gitai.
“Kadosh” means “sacred.” For Meir (Yoram Hattab), a longtime student of the Torah at his domineering Rabbi father’s Jerusalem yeshiva, his sacred devotion to Judaism is increasingly clashing with his love for his wife Rivka (Yæl Abecassis). It’s a conflict caused by their apparent inability to have children after ten years of marriage. You see, Rivka’s barrenness essentially makes her worthless and disposable, at least according to dear old dad, whose handful of carefully chosen Torah passages states that a woman’s sole purpose on this Earth is to bear children to populate Isræl, and subsequently care for them and her husband so he can tend to his Torah studies. Obviously the whole “barefoot and pregnant” stereotype didn’t originate with either our trailer park trash or inner city welfare mothers.
Rivka’s little sister Malka (Meital Barda), meanwhile, isn’t faring much better. Although she’s in love with Yakov, a sexy and darkly charismatic Reform-minded folk singer, the Rabbi has arranged her marriage to the repugnant Yossef; the kind of charming fellow who drives around Jerusalem inciting his fellow citizens to a holy war by way of a Blues Brothers-ish loudspeaker and whose idea of foreplay is shoving a pillow underneath the woman’s hips.
This is an absolutely harrowing, heart-wrenching film, made even more so by its, shall we say, contemplative pace. Gitai gives us plenty of time — at 110 minutes, too much time, actually — to suffer with Rivka and Malka as they suffocate before our very eyes. Renato Berta’s stark and simple photography, dominated by the hoary city’s earth tones, pale blues and grays, sets a mood as somber as the Wailing Wall, reinforced by Philippe Eidel’s haunting and sorrowful soundtrack. Ultimately, though, it’s Hattab’s tormented portrayal of a deeply conflicted Meir that enables Gitai to pull off the neat trick of simultaneously respecting the nobler aspects of Hassidic tradition, in the process providing a fascinating glimpse inside the culture’s ancient rituals, while rightfully excoriating those misguided or cruel individuals who would mindlessly abuse them. Unfortunately, there’s plenty of abuse to go around, whether it’s Rivka’s merciless banishment to a lonely apartment or Malka’s brutal, loveless mating sessions.
“Kadosh” is not an easy film to endure. But it will definitely make you think regardless of your socio-political leanings. Whether you’re saddened and outraged by it or squirming in your seat at discovering your secretly-held attitudes so unfavorably depicted on-screen, Gitai’s film reminds viewers that human decency and respect for one another are also sacred. These are concepts that fanatics all too often forget or, worse yet, ignore.