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Jane Enkin's Review of Apples From the Desert and Felix and Meira from 2016 Wpg International Film Festival

By Jane Enkin ( Music and Story at June 9, 2016

Two films in the 2016 Winnipeg International Jewish Film Festival had a similar starting point:  a young woman is uncomfortable with her life in an Orthodox community and longs for escape.  These movies are vastly different in style and approach; I enjoyed the first one I saw and not the second.

In the sweet movie Apples From the Desert, Rivka Abarbanel lives in a strict Haredi Sephardic community in Jerusalem. She is nineteen, curious and energetic, but tense in her troubled family. In this film, back stories and character points are unfolded gradually and clearly through the characters’ interactions but more often by what they say about each other – much is whispered in this intimate community.  We understand more and more Rivka’s unhappiness and the unhappiness of her parents as well.


Because her life in Jerusalem brings her in close proximity with secular Israelis, we also see her fascination, and then her joy as she tries new experiences – exclusively wholesome ones like long walks with a friend. When she feels the need to leave home, she calls a boy she met in an old-fashioned Israeli circle dance class -- they’re actually dancing to an Israeli arrangement of the old Yiddish song Oyfn Veg Shteyt a Boym! – and he takes her to his old-fashioned secular kibbutz. A family crisis is the result.


In Apples From the Desert everyone is doing the best they can under the circumstances, and sometimes they surprise one another; sometimes they surprise themselves.  Rivka’s father (Shlomi Koriat) is brooding and quietly passionate; her mother, played by the lovely and delicate Reymond Amsalem, is fragile yet resilient. Rivka views her mother’s life as the model of everything she wants to avoid, but there is a sympathy between them, an ease that comes with their warmth and love.  Her father’s lack of ease affects all his relationships within and beyond the family.  His impulsive, sometimes explosive emotional life is communicated clearly. An unlikely, perhaps unwitting role model for Rivka is her mother’s good-natured sister Sarah, who quietly lives an atypical although strictly Haredi life – she’s never married and she has a pet cat.


Moran Rosenblatt’s Rivka is lovely, dimpled and fresh, absolutely glowing whenever she is happy.  The kibbutznik boy she gets to know (Elisha Banai) is cute, (a bit funny-looking, a nice choice instead of some glamourous movie star type.)  Both are sensitive actors with good chemistry.  We see them together first in Jerusalem, then on the kibbutz as she tries to adjust to life there.


Brief moments in the film stand in for larger transitions that would take longer in real lives. Rivka hesitates before entering a dwelling with no mezuzah on the door.  It’s a subtle, lovely moment, and while there are a few other examples, the audience is left to imagine more challenges an observant woman would face in a non-observant home.  We can’t know what her spiritual and religious path will be in the future.  She is clear about her path as a feminist and an individualist, which she could carry out as a mature woman in either the Orthodox or the secular world in Israel.


It is perhaps a bit ironic that in our century, a kibbutz can be used as the context for a celebration of autonomy and the importance of individual choice, in contrast to the Haredi world of Rivka’s family with its focus on being part of the community and its norms.  In the early days of the kibbutz movement, the community was paramount.  Rivka is a talented visual artist; in the 1970s, the women in my family who were visual artists were provided with studio space on their kibbutzim in exchange for producing a certain amount of commercial art each week, with profits going to the collective, and the understanding that their more creative work would be produced in off hours. 



The directors, Matti Harari and Arik Lubetsky, create an idealized picture of the Haredi world, the secular atmosphere of Jerusalem, and the kibbutz.   I don’t recall seeing anyone non-Jewish in the film. Everywhere the young Jewish people are all fit and cute, bearing any psychic wounds bravely and with happy resilience.  On the kibbutz, every individual we meet is either young or enjoying a youthful old age. (My own recollections of family members on kibbutzim supports this image, so perhaps it’s realistic.) In the Haredi Sephardic community,  there is music, joy and fervour.

Rivka will have to make brave choices, but she faces good opportunities no matter her path.


Felix and Meira, directed by Maxime Giroux, is a film I had hoped to enjoy.  Critical reaction has been positive (I’m writing this review before I read other critiques, but the movie earns lots of “stars.”) Perhaps it is successful in exploring depression, anxiety, and experiences of feeling trapped, confused, frustrated, empty…

Meira (Hadas Yaron) lives in a closed Hasidic world in central Montreal.  She is a young woman with a young husband, a cute baby, and a pleasant social circle.  Although she shows moments of joy with her little girl, she has otherwise lost touch with any positive feelings. Her depression is expressed partly through her irritation with the details of Orthodox life and the expectations of her community.  We don’t witness or hear details about any of the public behaviours that her husband says he finds “shameful,” but he reminds her of her promise to stop them.



In a kosher pizza place, she meets the francophone, non-Jewish Felix (Martin Dubreuil) who I suppose is also depressed, although it’s harder to tell. My strongest reaction to what unfolds is a list of uneasy and unsatisfied questions:


Why is Meira, who grew up in the community, different from her peers, and why is she such a mess? Why is the talented, super-wealthy Felix such a mess?  Why are they attracted to each other? And what is her problem with that nice husband Shulem?

Why does Montreal look so beige in this movie?



And why do all the Hasidic women look that way too? One young Hasidic woman with energy appears very briefly, as a friend who looks after the baby.  (Josh Dolgin, DJ Socalled, plays the small role of her husband, a close friend of Shulem’s, but he is not given much to do.)  The other Hasidic women we see in Montreal all resemble Meira – they are all young, all extremely thin, they all wear drab colours and the identical mousy brown wig, and with their hushed voices and busy hands they don’t seem more content than Meira. Would these women never interact with older women in their community? And when no men are around, would they never enjoy each other’s company?


When Felix introduces Meira to some secular pleasures, why is the narrative interrupted with a startlingly long video excerpt of Sister Rosetta Tharpe singing Didn’t It Rain?


The reaction of the Winnipeg audience as they left the movie was, “Slow.”  Some people admired the film for its moody, careful pace, and others felt there was too much left out and too little of the characters’ inner lives and history made clear. If you choose to see this film, you can watch for a repeated motif as characters “try on” each others’ identities; for example, early on Felix tries on his father’s suit jacket. Unfortunately, as a perceptive friend (who enjoyed the film) pointed out, the characters always seem to make this attempt at empathy when it’s too late. Long, dimly lit, silent shots were sometimes lovely, but not, for me, evocative of any feelings or thoughts.The exception for me is in the character of Meira’s husband, played by Luzer Twersky.  I watched a fascinating online interview and learned that Twersky was raised as a Hasidic Jew and was the only fluent Yiddish speaker on the set, tasked with acting as coach to the other actors. Perhaps it was the interview that helped me tune into the actor more, but I found I could understand his motivations and his problems.  He certainly comes across as controlling, but mostly in the sense that a spouse whose partner can’t seem to hold her life together chooses to be firm. His pain, his awkwardness and his grace reached me.

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