The Hebrew writing on the side of a bus in a rare street scene places it in Israel (specifically Tel Aviv), but the world evoked in this remarkable debut feature is so hermetically sealed it could be in any city.
In an Hasidic (ultra-orthodox Jewish) enclave, 18-year-old Shira (Yaron) is newly betrothed after the complicated process of discussion, brokering and prayer required by the need for social cohesion in her community. But the anticipated celebration is thrown into chaos by the death of her older sister, Esther (Raz), who is delivered of a son on her deathbed.
Almost imperceptibly and by unspoken agreement, the focus moves to what to do about the plight of the suddenly widowed Yochay, who is faced with raising a child alone. When pressure comes on Shira to heal the wound left by her sister's passing, a woman barely young enough to fall in love becomes the central figure of an intimate and absorbing domestic drama.
The film, the first by an orthodox Israeli woman, is notable for the way it immerses us in its world, disdaining any culturally critical perspective and treating it simply as context.
Burshtein, who also wrote, toyed with the idea of using an all-Hasidic cast of non-actors, but decided that the complexity of the characters required professionals, even if some were secular Jews. And she has drawn performances of restraint and subtlety from a large cast, in particular from the women.
The film she has made is a socially specific moral fable worthy of Jane Austen, but dense with ethnographic detail. Commendably, though always deeply respectful it achieves a quiet sense of the absurd: at one point, the rabbi, dealing with a string of supplicants with profound personal or spiritual problems, suspends his consultations to go and give a poor widow some advice about what kind of oven to buy.
The cinematographer, Asaf Sudry, lights interiors like a Flemish master and takes us in so close to the characters that we can almost hear them thinking (a refined sound design adds to the intimacy, too). This is an absorbing and highly watchable film.
Cast: Hadas Yaron, Yiftach Klein, Irit Sheleg, Renana Raz, Razia Israeli
Director: Rama Burshtein
Running time: 91 mins
Rating: M (In Hebrew with English subtitles)
Verdict: Fascinating and intimate