Of stereotypes and Orthodox women

Filmmakers have understandably shied away from addressing them.

bruriah billboard (photo credit: Courtesy)
bruriah billboard
(photo credit: Courtesy)
BRURIAH Rated 4 out of 5 stars Directed by Avraham Kushnir. Written by Kushnir, Baruch Brener, Hadar Galron, and Yuval Kushnir. Hebrew title: Bruria. 90 minutes. In Hebrew With Hadar Galron, Baruch Brener, Yisrael Damidov, Alon Aboutboul There are so many complex issues involving women and their place in Orthodox Judaism that filmmakers have understandably shied away from addressing them. But Avraham Kushnir, a documentary filmmaker in his feature film debut, has risen to the challenge. Bruriah is as complex as the issues it raises. It demands a great deal from the viewer, but rewards those who enjoy movies with three-dimensional characters as contradictory as real people. There are no villains here. And, while there clearly is a heroine, she is not always an entirely sympathetic character. The plot is contemporary, but influenced by the legend of Bruriah, who lived in the second century and is believed to have been one of the most learned Jewish women in history. Her scholarship was unprecedented for a woman, but, according to the legend, she met her downfall when she was seduced by one of her husband's students, sent by her husband. Her life story has been used to illustrate some rabbis' teaching that "women are light-headed." The heroine, also named Bruriah (Hadar Galron), struggles with the obligations of being a wife and mother, and a woman interested in learning. But her life is colored by a childhood trauma. Her father was a rabbi who wrote a book praising the legendary Bruriah, which stirred controversy in the religious community where they lived. He and his family were ex-communicated, actually cast out, as a result of the controversy and all copies of the book were burned. Bruriah, who was always close to her father, was deeply hurt by this incident and has always hoped that a copy survived. When the movie opens, Bruriah's oldest daughter wants to study Talmud seriously and feels women should be ordained as rabbis. This puts the girl into conflict with her father, Yaacov (Baruch Brener), a rabbi, who completely rejects this idea. Bruriah, upset by the conflict between her husband and child, feels torn in the middle. Just then, she learns that there may be a lone copy of her father's book in a second-hand bookstore (the owner is played by critic Emmanuel Halperin). Yaacov is upset by Bruriah's devotion to her finding the book and restoring her father's reputation and sees this quest as an unhealthy obsession. Her focus on the book leads to an estrangement between them. By chance, she meets a young Russian man (Yisrael Damidov), who is sympathetic to her search and begins spending time with him. It turns out that he is studying with Yaacov (as is another character played by leading Israeli actor Alon Aboutboul, who appears briefly as a student). She begins to wonder whether Yaacov has sent this Russian to seduce her - just as the earlier Bruriah's husband did - and is frightened by the idea. At the same time Bruriah is helping a young secular woman going through a divorce fight for her rights in the rabbinical courts. Without giving anything away, let's just say that, as a result of knowing this woman, Bruriah begins experimenting with a different style of dress. The script doesn't dumb down the religious issues to make them understandable and palatable to the lowest secular common denominator, as so many movies about religion do. While Yaacov represents the more conservative point of view, he is not a reactionary or a creep, but someone who is cautious about change and threatened by his daughter's new ideas. But Bruriah is more than a film about religious conflicts. It is also an examination of the war between the sexes and a look at marital troubles. Bruriah herself can be bossy and self-centered, so it's easy to see how the religious disagreements between the couple are used by both partners to play out their personal drama. The performances make the movie. Above all, Hadar Galron, a British-born actress, comedian and writer, who co-wrote the screenplay, shines as the brilliant, beautiful, devoted and sometimes infuriating title character. Baruch Brener, who also worked on the screenplay, gives a low-key, natural performance as her husband, while Yisrael Damidov is appealing as the smitten younger man. The performances are enhanced by a dramatic score by Yoni Rechter. There are times when the conflicts presented by the script feel overly schematic, but the confusing ending is anything but formulaic. See this film with a friend so that the two of you can argue about the last five minutes. Love the ending or hate it, it will give you something to think about afterwards, which is true of very few movies these days.