I don’t usually review movies, because I’m not much of a movie-goer. But when the Jewish FilmFest comes to town, I sit up and pay attention, and usually try to attend something. Sadly, many of the movies paint religious Judaism in a negative light, and I’ve almost come to expect that in any movie made by secular Israelis. The religious/secular divide in Israel is palpable, as one movie-reviewer noted, and it’s no surprise that these themes will dominate many Israeli movies. Plus, how many religious Jews in Israel are making movies? So their perspective is rare.
Last night I went to see Apples from the Desert. True to what I anticipated, the religious guy in the story is an abusive ogre, and the guy from the kibbutz is a soft-spoken, sweet guy who doesn’t take advantage of the naive religious girl. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The movie is about a 19-year-old religious girl, Rivka, who comes from a very religious, and also very controlling, home. After her father attempts to control and dominate her choices as her sympathetic (but equally controlled) mother looks on in pain, she escapes to a secular kibbutz to be with a boy she has clandestinely been meeting at a dance class. What transpires after that, and how each family member handles the conflict, is just riveting.
In general, I think the movie was exquisitely done. The actors were fabulous – from the protagonist Rivka, with her roiling emotions between wistful fidelity to her faith, and fury and rebellion toward her father; to her mother, Victoria, with her equally conflicted emotions between loyalty to her overbearing husband and maternal sympathy toward her daughter, further complicated by her own pain at her daughter’s choices; and, the most delightful character, Sara, Victoria’s offbeat sister in whom Rivka finds an unlikely ally.
The only character I didn’t think was well done was the father’s (in a weird oversight, his first and last name both seem to be “Abarbanel”). In a way, his abusive and controlling nature make it easier to understand why his daughter wanted to run away from him and all he stood for – the movie alludes to a suicide attempt a number of years prior – which seems to imply that she is rebelling against him as opposed to against religion. On the other hand, it just feeds into the tired canard that Orthodox Jewish men are mean, sexist, controlling and unpleasant, plus I think it’s just a little artistically lazy. I wish he would have been a real person, a sympathetic character, or we could at least understand why he acts this way, and then she’d rebel – now that would be a much more interesting story.
I also like how Rivka didn’t just drop everything. In one segment she is seen having her boyfriend install a mezuzah on their illicitly shared room. What I like about this is the artistic and religious nuance which is much more reflective of real life than black-and-white portrayals of rebellion.
There were a few parts that really moved me to tears. When Victoria cries over her daughter’s choices, it hit really close to home for me. Although I don’t think the movie makers intended for this to be about the parents’ pain, I have so many friends who are going through similar pain when their children choose different religious paths, and although in the movie the parents’ expressions of pain are almost viewed as backwater, narrow responses, I totally related.
For a religious mother to show up after not seeing her daughter in ages, and see her dressed in shorts and living with her boyfriend, and to be able to hug her daughter unconditionally first and ask questions about her choices later, if at all, is a huge feat of bravery and control. Many just can’t do it. Do the children understand the conflict that their parents experience in these pivotal moments? Rivka seemed forgiving – maybe because she knew with all her heart that her mother loved her no matter what and only wanted what was best for her.
Another sidebar was that some of my non-Orthodox friends were in the same theater as me, watching the same film. They all know I’m pretty much a PG kind of girl in my media consumption, and a few commented that because I was there, they felt they were watching the movie with their mom in the room – and feeling uncomfortable during some of the romantic scenes. I find this both hilarious and deeply flattering. Just by being who you are and setting your standards where you feel comfortable, you can have a great impact on others.
I won’t tell the end of the story. To the movie’s credit, it didn’t wasn’t all nice and neat. In the end, while I was troubled by the perpetuation of stereotypes, I felt the movie was really about a much bigger story – the coming of age of a young girl who tries to figure out who she wants to be, and the growth and maturity of her loved ones along the way.