In writer-director Tsivia Barkai Yacov’s modest but promising first feature, Red Cow (Para Aduma), a teenage girl’s sexual awakening and her eventual coming out are upended by the strict religious beliefs of her widowed father.
It’s a scenario we’ve perhaps seen before, but by staging the action in a West Bank settlement populated by Israeli zealots who believe in the coming of the messiah, Yacov deftly uses a familiar story to explore questions of faith, family and identity in a closed community where homosexuality is all but forbidden. After premiering in Berlin’s Generation section, the film could see further festival bids and pickups by distributors catering to Jewish and LGBTQ viewers.
An intriguing tale of forbidden first love.
Set in an East Jerusalem neighborhood that’s a stone’s throw away from the Old City, Red Cow focuses on the relationship between 17-year-old Benny (Avigayil Koevary) and her devout dad, Yehoshua (Gal Toren). The latter leads a group of Israeli extremists who, as per the film’s title, are raising a sacred red heifer they believe will herald the dawn of a new age for Jews, allowing them to return to the Temple Mount, which they have been banned from for so long. (In one scene, we see Yehoshua and his followers trying to crash the holy site and being turned away by security guards.)
Confined to a life of prayer and study, as well as to preparation classes for her future role as a devout Jewish wife, Benny (whose name hints at her own sexual uncertainty) soon grows interested in another member of their tight-knit group: the beautiful and more mature Yael (Moran Rosenblatt). The two quickly hit it off, and before long their friendship blossoms into something more. But in a place where girls are relegated to minor roles and the only acceptable union is between a man and a woman, there is little hope for such an affair to stand up against sectarian doctrine.
Indeed, once Benny and Yael sleep together for the first time — in a sequence that Yacov captures with a naturalistic and tasteful eroticism — Yehoshua seems to be aware that something is up. Yet as a single father who has devoted himself entirely to the Jewish cause, he doesn’t know how to cope with his daughter’s burgeoning sexuality and can only give her the cold shoulder. Meanwhile, Benny experiences the painful throes of adolescent first love, but must suffer in secret or run the risk of being ostracized by her own people.
Procuring fine performances from her three leads, Yacov keeps the drama intimate while hinting at the greater issues raised by men like Yehoshua who believe Israel to be a strictly Jewish state, and who are prepared to live in the heart of Palestinian territory in order to prove their point.
Toren is especially convincing as a father who seems to cling to religion because he cannot face the harsh realities of his past, including the death of his wife during childbirth. The closer he tries to get to God, the further he winds up separating himself from what should matter most: his own family.
Newcomer Koevary is compelling as a teenager who figures out exactly what she wants and is unafraid to express it, yet finds her desires quashed by the authoritarian rules of the sect-like colony. Rosenblatt is also strong as a woman willing to give up on love to preserve a certain sanctity within the community.
Capturing Benny’s troublesome plight in a gritty, handheld style that recalls recent Israeli films like Matan Yair’s Scaffolding or Asaf Korman’s Next to Her, the director and cinematographer Boaz Yehonatan Yacov set the action in a series of spare apartments and narrow streets, with the heart of old Jerusalem always lingering in the background — like a possibility that’s forever out of reach.
Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Generation 14plus)
Production company: Laila Films
Cast: Avigayil Koevary, Gal Toren, Moran Rosenblatt
Director, screenwriter: Tsivia Barkai Yacov
Producer: Itai Tamar
Director of photography: Boaz Yehonatan Yacov
Production designer: Ehud Gutterman
Costume designer: Lilu Goldfine
Editor: Haim Tabakman
Composer: Karni Postel
Casting director: Hadas Sadan
Sales: Alma Films