Set in the ultra-Orthodox quarter of Jerusalem called Mea Shearim, Kadosh (meaning “sacred”) studies two sisters enduring the ironhanded restrictions of their tiny, airtight society, and marks Amos Gitaï’s first effort in employing a fabricated narrative after 20 years of documentaries and semifictional film “essays.” The result carries the sharp sting and the enduring chill of the hardest truth.
Gitaï bestows on his film a tenacious attention to routine, to the habits and daily tasks that provide a steadying cadence amid miscellaneous upheavals but that also, piecemeal and almost imperceptibly, add up to the story of a life: Rivka (Yaël Abecassis) wipes away tears as she chops onions for dinner; sister Malka (Meital Barda) gasps for air as the stern hand of her mother dunks her, over and over, into a ritual bath because she is unclean. Ritual amounts to an unseen but omnipotent character in Kadosh‘s world, since rigid interpretations of Talmudic law govern everything from lovemaking to tea-taking, and formulate women as little more than childbearing bodies; after Rivka and Meir (Yoram Hattab) have been married 10 years without conceiving, they receive an anonymous letter that reads, “A woman without a child is no better than dead.” Husband and wife make a loving, devoted couple, but a menacing pack of religious, societal, and familial pressures all but devour the marriage, recalling Dariush Mehrjui’s equally devastating Leila.
Malka, more headstrong and less devout than her outwardly serene older sister, loves a Mea Shearim deserter named Yaakov (Sami Hori), but she’s finally cornered into marriage to Yossef (Uri Ran Klausner), a puffing bully who tools around in a truck blaring God’s teachings through a bullhorn. The Yossef character remains for the most part a monstrous abstraction, a point of entry into Malka’s mounting anguish, rage, and claustrophobia. (Kadosh is composed mostly of close interiors; outdoor scenes, excepting a final, transcendent overview of Jerusalem, emanate a furtive, forbidden air.) Watching Malka hysterically laugh and weep at her reflection as she hacks off her beautiful long hair is almost as unbearable as the brutal ordeal of her wedding night, which Gitaï renders in one long, static, unwavering shot.
One of Gitaï’s greatest assets in Kadosh is such stillness, which leaves facile outsiders’ judgment out of the frame and thereby deepens our immersion in the narrative. He patiently contemplates his actresses: Barda’s stunned, stricken look during Malka’s marriage ceremony, as the female guests circle around her in a dirgelike wedding dance, lends her the breathless panic of someone being sucked into a vortex. And Abecassis’s tranquil mien slowly fades as Rivka is edged out of her society—her eyes cloud over and her facial muscles slacken, like someone being strangled from the inside. Indeed, Kadosh makes the strong suggestion—one perhaps secular to a fault but no less compelling for it—that Rivka and Malka’s crises have their origins from within as well as without, that they can choose their fates. The choice, as we see though we want to look away, requires their every reserve of strength, and might well be a matter of life or death.