Kadosh, Amos Gitai's latest film, which was selected for the Cannes Festival, has recently been shown nationwide in Israel. Although the whole action takes place within a very religious family, living in the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Mea Shearim in Jerusalem, the film is, first and foremost, a marvelous love story revolving around two sisters, brilliantly played by Yael Abecassis and Meital Barda. There is the love of the older sister Rivka for her husband Meir, the love of the younger sister Malka for her lover Ya'acov and, finally, there is the love the two sisters bear each other. There is also the unstinting adherence by these characters to the strict rules of this religious community, rules that posit an absolute observance of the rabbi's dictums.

Without Complacency

Kadosh shows the two women struggling between submission and revolt in the face of stifling religious precepts. Rivka, who loves her husband with a love that is unconditional and absolute, resigns herself to being repudiated because she is considered (wrongly so, as shown by a medical examination), sterile. Malka, having accepted, out of filial obedience, to marry a man who disgusts her, ends up rebelling and joining her lover, who leads a less restrictive lifestyle.
The way Amos Gitai looks at this reclusive milieu, where love and repulsion, disgust and desire, submission and revolt are intertwined, is certainly not one of indifference, but neither is it judgmental. It could have been vitriolic, given the suffering and misery inflicted in different ways upon the two sisters as a result of the norms imposed by the rabbi, the husband and, indeed, by man, because men are the uncontested and incontrovertible voice of the Almighty, the Eternal, blessed be His name. And although Gitai shows us, without any complacency, the cruelty of this male domination of woman, he is careful to avoid clichés and a one-dimensional discourse. Even in his portrayal of the severe character of Rabbi Shimon (played, incidentally, by an Arab actor, Yussuf Abu Warda), the director strains to comprehend the inner truth of the man who has charge of this all-embracing and all-powerful religious community. The rabbi, Amos Gitai show us, is not a cold monster, but a man who, himself, is subject to the tough religious teachings that say that a Jewish family without children is an abomination. It is clear for him that only children, as many as possible, can ensure the continuity of the Orthodox community, whose victory over the free thinkers is much more important than that of a restricted nuclear family, let alone the aspirations to happiness of one isolated individual.
The film, then, is by no means an anti-religious tract, but one showing, with nuances, how the Jewish religious lifestyle, prevailing in a closed ultra-Orthodox milieu, molds the behavior of human beings. This has not stopped the Israeli Foundation for Quality Films from withholding all financial assistance to the film Kadosh. Could the reason be attributed to the presence of three religious members on the committee of the Foundation? Or the fact that Ya'acov Peri, former chief of the Shin Bet and president of the committee, has not forgiven Gitai his documentaries showing the wrongs of the Israeli occupation? Or could it be Gitai's other fictional films like Yom Yom, where the filmmaker opens the old and festering wounds of the Jewish-Arab conflict that continue to poison our life today?

Against the Stream

"My first film, House, was already censored by the Israeli TV, which had commissioned it in the first place. It tells the story of a house in Jerusalem, inhabited before 1948 by a Palestinian family and later by a Jewish Israeli family. Asked to make cuts in order to attenuate the political repercussion, I refused. My career at the Israeli TV was thus over," says Amos Gitai, adding, "it is this attempt at censorship and my rejection of it that were decisive for my filmmaking career." Before then, he was still not certain that he wanted to make films, professionally. After all, he was an architect, the son of a renowned architect, belonging to the Bauhaus School. Amos Gitai, who was born in Haifa (Israel) in 1950, seemed predestined to walk in his father's footsteps. He graduated from the school of architecture at the Technion in Haifa, then obtained a doctorate in architecture at the University of Berkeley in California. But something along the way made him change course. This "something" is multidimensional, but the main dimension was no doubt his Israeli experience.
Amos Gitai was profoundly marked by his military service and by Israeli repression in the occupied Palestinian territories. He was part of an elite unit, Sayeret Egoz, and was wounded in the Lebanese war in 1982. He then produced A Campaign Diary, a film that was also rejected by the Israeli TV as well as by Israeli distributors. These, while not contesting his talent, explained gently to him that they were not ready to continue banging their heads against a wall. So, in 1983, Amos Gitai left with his family for Paris. There he stayed ten years, producing film after film - first documentaries, then fiction - in total, fifteen, often achieving recognition in international festivals. In 1993, he returned home where he filmed a trilogy focused on the three big cities of Israel: Dvarim (Things) in Tel Aviv, Yom Yom (Day after Day) in Haifa, and Kadosh (Sacred) in Jerusalem.
"Cinema cannot change reality, but it can sensitize people, and make them comprehend the situation of the Other, the person facing us who is often ignored or regarded with disdain," says the Israeli filmmaker. Is Amos Gitai then a committed director? Undoubtedly, but not in the literal, vulgar sense of the word. He does not make films that aim to prove a thesis. "Didacticism horrifies me," he says. His commitment gives expression to the rhythm of people's lives, to their aspirations, often contradictory, often diametrically opposed and painfully enmeshed in the complex Israeli reality. To begin with, Gitai is committed on the side of his characters, creatures of flesh and blood, in love, often cruel, devoted, generous, but also - as in life - liars and weaklings. Then Gitai does not conform to the taste of the day. Eroticism, sexuality are very present in his films, including Kadosh, but not to the detriment of feelings or the thirst for an authentic, totally consuming love relationship.

The Universal and the Israeli

"In Kadosh it was necessary to avoid the trap of presenting the characters as caricatures. In particular, I didn't set out to judge this religious community," says Gitai, "but I wanted to cast a critical eye on their lives and to place the loving and passionate feelings of the two sisters within the context of their family and community. Most religions impose restrictions, but the question of love and its dénouement, sometimes tragic, transcends the narrow world of their immediate surroundings. It is universal."
Gitai brings home the fact that this family's torments reflect contradictions that beset Israeli society in its entirety. Thus, to convince a recalcitrant Meir to repudiate his beloved, supposedly sterile, wife, Rabbi Shimon tells him: "It is only by obeying the laws of procreation that we will succeed in beating the miscreants." The demographic character of the struggle for power in Israel between the religious and the secular is clearly evidenced here. For Amos Gitai, the Jewish religion as overseen by the rabbinical establishment in Israel is fused into a vaster, religio-national, political project, where the territorial expansion of the State of Israel is underpinned and justified by biblical texts, and thus sacred. "In the Diaspora," says Amos Gitai, "Judaism was decentralized. There were always many possible interpretations of the same text, of the same event. Now, in Israel there is one single orchestrated discourse, a sort of state religion that has territorial ambitions."