French director Karin Albou makes an impressive debut with this rich and beautifully constructed character study of two Orthodox Jewish women who live with their widowed Tunisian mother in a housing complex in the Parisian suburb known as "Little Jerusalem." Eighteen-year-old Laura (Fanny Valette) and her older married sister, Mathilde (Elsa Zylberstein), are very different women at very different points in their lives, who are nevertheless having similar difficulties finding their exact place in relation to the laws that govern their lives. Unlike Mathilde, whose devout husband, Ariel (Bruno Todeschini), and their four children also live with Mathilde's immigrant mother (Sonia Tahar), Laura isn't interested in following the precepts of their orthodox religion that circumscribe the lives of the devout, particularly Jewish women. Laura prefers instead the more secular rigors of philosophy, which she's studying at the university, and she's particularly enamored of Emmanuel Kant and the personal rules he devised for himself. Each night at seven o'clock sharp, Laura even emulates Kant's "philosopher's walk" by taking a daily stroll around the multiethnic housing block, a stricture that also gives her a chance to make eye contact with handsome Djamel (Hedi Tillette de Clermont-Tonnerre), who works an earlier shift at the local elementary school where Laura works as a cleaning woman. Djamel also hails from North Africa, but he's Algerian and a Muslim, which makes any serious future with Laura well near impossible. But as her desire for Djamel grows, all those little rules by which she'd hoped to keep her passions in check — not just her walk, but studying and attending classes — fall by the wayside, and Laura soon finds her life growing increasingly unstable. Mathilde, meanwhile, can't understand Laura's disregard for the religious orthodoxy that is so important to herself, and thinks that if her younger sister would just give up philosophy and became more observant, her life would be far happier. But Mathilde's understanding of that orthodoxy is seriously shaken when she discovers Ariel has been cheating on her. When she confronts him, Ariel explains that he had to turn to another woman because he respects Mathilde far too much to ask her to do anything "different" in bed. Thinking that it was unacceptable for a "modest" Jewish woman to even touch her husband's genitals, Mathilde seeks advice from the woman (Aurore Clement) at the local mikvah where Mathilde regularly receives her ritual bath. The counselor tries to show Mathilde how she can experience personal happiness, even sexual pleasure, while still remaining true to Jewish law. Beautifully played by Valette and Zylberstein, and directed with amazing grace by Albou, this touching film offers a respectful, fascinating look at a community that's ignored as often as it's misunderstood. (In French and Hebrew, with English subtitles.)
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