A devout 18-year-old Israeli is pressured to marry the husband of her late sister. Declaring her independence is not an option in Tel Aviv's ultra-Orthodox Hasidic community, where religious law, tradition and the rabbi's word are absolute.This is a truly awful synopsis, which, after the first sentence gets it completely wrong.
When we meet Shira, she's sneaking into a grocery store with an older woman who's pointing out a boy to her. This is the boy she's going to marry, and she's very excited, as she feels like he's the right one for her.
So, right off the bat, you can see that she's not just okay with the arranged marriage, she's happy about it. She's looking forward to it. She wants to take her place in society. She's actually envious of her older sister who married a decade earlier and is perfect in every way (at least in Shira's eyes).
You can see why the bien pensants at Sundance would have to affix a female oppression narrative over this.
Anyway, as noted, Esther dies in childbirth and it falls to Shira and her mother to take care of the child while the father, Yochay, grieves. (He might be working, too, I don't know. It's unclear to me what anyone does for a living here.)
After about six months, pressure begins to mount for Yochay to remarry. I'm not exactly sure why he's such a hot ticket, but a Belgian family wants to marry him off to their daughter. Shira's mom hates the idea of losing her grandson (the movie takes place in Tel Aviv) and so comes up with the idea that Shira should marry Yochay. (The rabbi doesn't enter into it, as you see, until much later, and at no point is his word law. Actually, quite the contrary, he susses out Shira's unhappiness and insists she not marry out of obligation.)
There's also a sad creature named Frieda running around that nobody seems to want to marry. (Although, again, I'm not sure why.) She kind of cocks things up by suggesting Esther wanted her to marry Yochay.
So the story here, really, is how Shira interacts with Yochay, and her journey from girl to woman as she decides what she wants, and whether that can be reconciled with what society wants from her.
Culture (more than religion per se) permeates every frame. There are customs for grieving, for expressing "sorry you're not married yet", for expressing disagreement, and on and on. You quickly learn the right way to behave, and when people break the customs—when they let their individual desires override manners—it's both embarrassing and causes trouble, sometimes serious.
At the same time, the strict code creates a lot of the problems in the first place.
Even then, when a happy ending is suggested, and everything seems to have shaken out for the best, the stinger tells us "Oh, no, this is not a 'happily ever after', but a beginning, fraught with all new challenges."
It reminded me a bit of God's Neighbors, though there was much less actual religion/theology, and much more "How in the world do we all get along?" It seemed like a non-judgmental view of a society that is very unorthodox (ha!) in today's world, which made it worthwhile on its own.
The Boy and the Flower liked it, though not as much as I. This will probably be one of my favorites for the year.