During the 1970s, Moshe Mizrahi was one of the first Isræli filmmakers to enjoy international acclaim; he earned back-to-back Oscar nominations for “I Love You, Rosa” and “The House of Chelouche Street” and won the 1977 Academy Award for Best Foreign-Language Film with “Madame Rosa.” Strangely, Mizrahi’s career never maintained its momentum after winning the Oscar and his later films failed to capture critical or commercial rapture.
Mizrahi’s latest film was the 1997 drama “Women,” which was sadly not theatrically released in the U.S. but did appear on home video. The film is back again, this time on DVD, and it is clearly Mizrahi’s finest work since his heyday in the 1970s. It is also one of the finest Isræli features to emerge in the last few years.
“Women” takes place in late 19th century Jersualem. Jacob is the Sephardic rabbi who has been happily married to Rebecca for 15 years. While Jacob has no complaints about their union, Rebecca is endlessly upset that she never produced a child, and this fact is raised with increased sneering by her icy mother-in-law. Rebecca comes upon a strange and unusual solution to this dilemma: she implores Jacob to end their marriage and take a second wife in the form of Sultana, a young and naive girl who views Rebecca as a surrogate aunt. Jacob is initially displeased by the plan, but eventually agrees with the sole hope that Sultana can provide the long-absent child.
Unfortunately for Rebecca, things spin out of her control. Although she continues to live within Jacob’s home, her status is in limbo and her contact with Jacob becomes infrequent. The younger Sultana becomes the center of the household’s attention, driving Rebecca into jealousy. As her physical and emotional health fray, Rebecca regrets her plan but is unable to change her fate. Jacob, in his patience and wisdom, needs to bring the unhappy Rebecca into a new state of happiness and serenity.
Michal Bat-Adam, the director’s wife and frequent collaborator, moors “Women” with a commanding and heartbreaking central performance as Rebecca. It is certainly not an easy performance, offering multiple parts of jealousy, sympathy, pain, humility and the terrible weight of a self-imposed life sentence of being locked outside of a once-happy marriage. It is a career-pinnacle role and Ms. Bat-Adam rises brilliantly to the occasion, providing both a tower of strength and a ruin of misery within the passage of a few minutes’ screen time. If the film had a U.S. release, it is not unlikely to imagine Ms. Bat-Adam earning an Oscar nomination for this amazing tour de force.
“Women” is one of the most beautifully produced films to behold. The rich production design and exquisite costumes beautifully recreates the long-gone exoticism and easy charm of the unassimilated Sephardic community in old Palestine, and Amnon Zalaiet’s lush cinematography and Avihu Medina’s haunting score offers a lush treat for the senses (and one can almost imagine the glorious scents envoked in the film’s mouth-watering feasts and dinners).
“Women” is a marvelous work of art. Hopefully, the film’s appearance on DVD can bring it to the wider audience it so richly deserves.
In Hebrew with English Subtitles.