The allure of forbidden fruit

In ‘Apples in the Desert,’ secular life seems tempting to a young haredi girl.

‘Apples in the Desert’ movie (photo credit: PR)
‘Apples in the Desert’ movie
(photo credit: PR)
Hebrew title: Tapuhim mi ha’midbar
Written and directed by Matti Harari and Arik Lubetzki
With Moran Rosenblatt, Reymonde Amsallem, Shlomi Koriat, Elisha Banai
Running time: 96 minutes
In Hebrew
Check with theaters for subtitle information.
The drama Apples in the Desert is a straightforward film about a young ultra- Orthodox woman who is drawn to the freedom of the secular world. Based on a story by Savyon Liebrecht, it’s often quite moving but lacks a certain complexity. I kept expecting complications or surprises, but they didn’t come.
Nevertheless, one unqualified joy of watching this film is the lead performance by Moran Rosenblatt. Delicate and sensitive, she draws us into the story with her intensely likable presence. Physically, she resembles Natalie Portman, but her persona is a bit earthier and feistier. You instantly root for her, and she has that star quality: You just want to see more of her.
This is only Rosenblatt’s third feature film, but it is the first one in which she is the lead, and she seems utterly at ease. This role is perfect for her, and she makes the most of it.
She stars as Rivka Abarbanel, the daughter of a frustrated haredi father (Shlomi Koriat) everyone calls by his last name.
Stern and humorless, he runs a hardware store. Her mother (Reymonde Amsallem) is more open-minded, but she gives in to her husband on everything.
Rivka’s mother may obey her husband unquestioningly, but she is graceful and loving toward her daughter. Rivka’s aunt (Irit Kaplan) is a sharp-tongued unmarried woman who likes to make a joke out of everything, and Rivka finds her eccentric aunt encouraging.
But Rivka, 19, wants more out of life than to be a timid wife or a wise-cracking single woman. She longs for a different life entirely and has for a long time. When she was 14, she attempted to commit suicide by drinking bleach. Now she has put that self-destructive behavior behind her and works in a medical equipment supply center, but her head is elsewhere. It’s in the drawings she does, and at a co-ed folk dancing group she sneaks off to, where she has befriended a cute young guy, Dov (Elisha Banai). She leaves her job more and more to spend time with Dov, a university student who comes from a kibbutz in the Negev that specializes in growing organic apples – hence the title. These apples are very symbolic: They represent life force itself, which is stilted in Rivka’s haredi Jerusalem neighborhood. Unlike so many symbolic movie foodstuffs, they actually look tasty.
Her parents realize that she is deceiving them but don’t know what is up. Her mother responds by trying to talk to her, but her father has a different solution. He wants to marry her off to an older widow with four children.
Her mother is horrified by the idea and tells him so, but he insists it will be good for Rivka.
When Rivka hears of the plan, it pushes her further away — she asks Dov to take her to his kibbutz, where she is eager to do National Service (Sherut Leumi).
Once there, she has to learn quickly what life is like outside the haredi enclave where she has lived all her life.
The cast is excellent, especially Rosenblatt, but also Amsallem as her conflicted mother and Koriat as her gruff father. The father is such an unlikable character, but Koriat manages to find his humanity. Banai is very believable as the goofy, tolerant guy whom Rivka is understandably drawn to. Tzvi Shissel, an old buddy of Arik Einstein’s who appeared in Lool and Peeping Toms, has a small part as Dov’s father.
The portrayal of life on the kibbutz is almost completely positive. It’s the way old American movies used to show Manhattan – as a golden island of opportunity and fun. If you’ve ever spent time on a kibbutz, you know that it’s more of a mixed bag, but in the context of this story it’s heaven. A more nuanced vision would have been more interesting, but that’s not the story Apples in the Desert tells.