Secrets

Secrets (Eyal Landesman/Monterey Media, Inc.)

In "The Secrets," filmmaker Avi Nesher takes us into the emotional heart of young Israeli women struggling to mesh their emerging identities with an ultra-orthodox Jewish world where the glass ceiling tops out at marriage and children.

For some, it is an easy transition to wife and mother. For others, like Naomi (Ania Bukstein), a brilliant mind who would rather spend her time in study with her rabbi father, it is a struggle. The film, which the Israeli director co-wrote with feminist playwright Hadar Galron, uses the tension between tradition and ambition as the staging ground for an intellectual assault on restrictions imposed on women by orthodox interpretations of religious law.

All of which might sound like the basis for a turgid lecture rather than the stuff of entertainment, but "The Secrets" manages to weave mystery, mysticism, love and religious exploration into a mostly absorbing story that only occasionally unravels along the way.

Naomi is propelled on this journey by the death of her mother and the dismissive arrogance of her fiance, a promising protégé of her father. To delay the marriage, she negotiates a year of Talmudic study at a women's-only seminary in the mystical city of Safed, the birthplace of cabala.

It is here that the story picks up speed, with Naomi soon finding her life intertwined with her free-spirited roommate Michelle (Michal Shtamler) and pulled deeper into the mystery surrounding a beautiful older and ailing French woman, Anouk ( Fanny Ardant), who is searching for a way to make peace with her past before she faces her God.

At every turn, Michelle and Naomi find themselves at a crossroads -- should they follow tradition, staying within the lines of what is acceptable, or find a way to do what seems to be right? -- with the film never losing sight of the pressure to conform.

Though the seminary is theoretically a center of reform, the woman who heads it is cautious and Naomi is impatient. Soon, the girls are, for all practical purposes, off the grid, with Naomi devising a series of tikuns, cabala cleansing rites, to help Anouk purify herself before illness takes her. Not surprisingly, Anouk is not the only one looking to mitigate her sins.

We move between this hidden defiance that takes them through Safed's ancient streets and into sacred pools, and the growing attraction the girls feel for each other. There are lighter moments that include music and boyfriends and double dates, but for the most part serious life questions sit on the table between Naomi and Michelle, next to the religious books they believe hold all the answers.

There is pain and empowerment in "The Secrets" as difficult choices are made. There are also gaps, but emotionally moving performances by Ardant, Bukstein and Shtamler in particular, keep you with this small but provocative film until the end.

betsy.sharkey@latimes.com