Arts & Entertainment
1 min

When lesbian sexuality clashes with orthodoxy

The Secrets a reminder of the bad old days

To an urban queer audience —for whom transgendered city councillors, dykes on bikes and leather balls are visible aspects of everyday life —the Scripture-quoting social reality depicted in The Secrets will seem remarkably exotic and remote.

It’ll also act as a vivid reminder of the bad old days.

Set in the all-female Knowledge and Truth Seminary in Safed, Israel, Avi Nesher’s assured feature primarily observes the political and sexual awakening of Naomi, the dutiful and studious daughter of a renowned Orthodox Jewish religious scholar.

Having been taught since birth that a woman’s only role is to care for husband, child and home, Naomi is nonetheless determined to postpone her arranged marriage to rigid and patronizing Michael. So, in honour of her recently deceased mother, she proposes study at the women’s seminary —itself remarkable in a religious culture that actively prohibits women from worldly pursuits like politics, religious leadership and business.

Naomi’s gradual awakening comes as a result of contact with other women, in particular worldly Michelle, whose European education and skeptical attitude towards religious indoctrination open Naomi’s eyes to the variety of views outside of her deeply conservative home.

When the two are assigned to bring food to an impoverished and terminally ill Christian woman (a pariah who committed adultery and murder), their perspectives are widened still further.

Day by day as Naomi helps the woman find peace, she discovers true compassion, independent thought and same-sex eroticism.

When the girl’s flowering of non-conformity and sexuality is discovered, though, the reprisal is severe. Once faced with the unavoidable force of tradition, the resolve of the girls is tested, as is the durability of their love.

Like Fire —Deepa Mehta’s classic story of lesbian love triumphing over the forces of convention —The Secrets offers a withering criticism of the blindness and inflexibility of patriarchal orthodoxy. Still, without the subtly drawn characters, affecting performances and the nuance of the storytelling, The Secrets would be preachy and self-righteous.

Engrossing and complex, it’s also sobering and realistic, the small hope it offers dwarfed by resigned acceptance of the enormity of repressive tradition.