The premise sounds like a horror flick: a teenage girl is forced by an esoteric cult into marrying her dead sister’s husband. Except that in this case the “cult” happens to be the ultra-orthodox Jewish sect to which the girl and her family belong. In this world, a prearranged union is not only commonplace, it’s a duty that some women actually look forward to fulfilling.
Director Rama Burshtein’s debut is nothing less than astonishing. She’s a card-carrying member of Israel’s Hared community and, with that experience, has crafted a work of moral complexity and visual artistry, the contents of which some viewers will find repellent. A major component of the film’s triumph comes courtesy of Hadas Yaron as the 18-year-old Shira. With minimal means—furtive glances, pursed lips, and all other manner of momentary hesitations—her performance speaks volumes. Shira is biding her time until everyone decides what’s best. “It’s not a matter of feelings,” she says. “It’s only a matter of feelings,” counters the Rabbi. “A deed must be done,” replies Shira, “and I want to do it to everyone’s satisfaction.”
Fittingly, Asaf Sudri’s cinematography is often otherworldly. He imbues the film’s interiors with an ethereal fuzzy light, thanks in part to liberal use of extremely shallow focus. It’s a strategy that tends to isolate its subjects from their background reality, while at the same time bringing the audience closer. So close, in fact, that Shira’s submission begins to feel like a form of empowerment. You may scream now.