THE SECRETS Rating: **** Directed by Avi Nesher. Written by Nesher and Hadar Galron. Hebrew title: Ha Sodot. 89 minutes. In Hebrew; Some prints have English subtitles Avi Nesher's latest film, The Secrets, has a little something for everyone. Nesher, currently Israel's premiere moviemaking showman, directed the musical classic The Troupe (1978) when he was just 24. He then moved to Hollywood to make action films and came back to Israel in 2004 for Turn Left at the End of the World - a crowd-pleasing comedy-drama that became the most successful Israeli movie domestically, selling nearly a million tickets here. Part of the recent renaissance in Israeli movies, Turn Left was a coming-of-age drama about two girls in a remote Negev town, one from a family of Indian immigrants, one with Moroccan roots. The Secrets, which is a more serious film, has some points in common with Turn Left, in that it tells the story of an intense friendship between two young women, only this time they're at a women's religious studies college in Safed. But in spite of the austere setting, Nesher manages to work in many themes. There's some respect for tradition and some rebellion against it; New-Age, kabbala-flavored mysticism; a little klezmer music; appearances by TV stars; a comic fat girl; lovely photography of Safed at its most mysterious; an appearance by French diva Fanny Ardant; and, this being Nesher, full frontal nudity in the mikve. Although the thoughts of viewers may stray from kabbala and purity during the nude scenes, that doesn't diminish the power of the film nor the fact that it tries to convey a serious message about the conflicts faced by religious women. To tell this story, Nesher teamed up with a collaborator who brings an observant woman's perspective, British/Israeli playwright/actress Hadar Galron. The resulting film is both entertaining and moving, and although there are moments when Nesher's instinct for big, sometimes schticky set pieces seems to war with a more serious sensibility (presumably Galron's), it doesn't detract from the film's impact. The story focuses on Naomi (Ania Bokstien), a brilliant, pious girl from an ultra-Orthodox family, whose father (an unrecognizable Sefi Rivlin) is a rabbi with some respect for women's scholarship. She finds herself in a crisis when her mother dies. Although she is engaged to one of her father's best students, Michael (Guri Alfi), it's clear that there are no sparks between them and that she agreed to the match only to please her father. When she tells her father that she wants to study for a year before she marries, he tries to talk her out of it. But when he sees how determined she is, he agrees. The portrait of the seminary in Safed is vivid, and the students are a mixed bunch. Some of the young women like Sheine (Talli Oren), a wisecracking fat girl, are essentially just marking time until they marry. Sigi (Dana Ivgy) is newly religious and tackles her studies with unsophisticated enthusiasm. The seminary is presided over by a rabbanit played with unexpected gravity by Tiki Dayan, who desperately wants to further the cause (and quality) of women's education and is willing to make compromises with the rabbinical authorities in order to receive the rabbis' blessing. Surprisingly, the film shows the study of Torah and Talmud as liberating and stimulating (and perhaps even slightly subversive) for these young women, although some aspects of the religious lifestyle are portrayed as oppressive. When the rebellious Michelle (Michal Shtamler) arrives from France, trailing resentment and a backstory that is never fully explained, she and Naomi initially despise each other. But they begin to bond after Michelle develops an obsessive interest in Anouk (Fanny Ardant) - a beautiful, mysterious older woman living nearby to whom they have been given the task of distributing food collected for charity. Anouk is ill, may or may not be Jewish, and may have committed a terrible crime, all of which makes her a romantic figure to the two girls. In the murkiest part of the film, the brainy, spiritual Naomi (using some kind of kabbalistic criteria which would probably be more familiar to Madonna than to seminary students in B'nei Brak) devises a series of tikunim that will somehow purify Anouk and purge her of her sins. Although this may all sound very silly, Nesher sets up the girls' crazy passion for it very believably. Anouk enthusiastically participates in these rituals, but of course they must be kept secret from the seminary head. When some of the other girls find out what they are up to, these rituals jeopardize Naomi and Michelle's place at the school. The plot is further complicated by a growing attraction between them. Naomi sees their attraction as a way for her to break free from her family, while Michelle, who has enjoyed less stability in her life, is torn between her love for her friend and an attraction to the happy-go-lucky Yankele (Adir Miller), a klezmer musician she meets by chance. Although some of the plot twists seem forced, it's a real pleasure to watch the story unfold and enjoy the work of three wonderful actresses: the French superstar Fanny Ardant, and the up-and-coming Israelis Ania Bokstien and Michelle Shtamler. Ardant, who was once the muse of Francois Truffaut and starred in his films, The Woman Next Door and Vivement Dimanche!, has a riveting screen presence and is still a haunting beauty. Bokstien, familiar from her role on the TV show Our Song and the movie The Schwartz Dynasty, is in nearly every frame and gives a wonderful, nuanced performance. Shtamler is also appealing, and highlights her character's contradictory impulses. Dana Ivgy, in the small but key role of the overly zealous, newly religious student, is more natural and expressive than I've ever seen her before. For Israeli viewers, it will be fun to watch such TV actors as Adir Miller cast against type as a shy religious guy. The nudity and lesbian overtones in the film may put off some observant viewers and may encourage others to ignore the more intriguing aspects of the story. Viewers expecting a conventional narrative, in which religion is either a positive or negative force, will be disappointed. But Nesher's refreshing refusal to settle for easy answers and to leave some mysteries unsolved shows a new maturity in his filmmaking.