“Red Cow” (“Para Aduma”)
Coming-of-Age Sexually, Religiously and Politically in Israel
“Red Cow is a coming-of-age film that takes place in Israel during the days leading up to the assassination of Rabin. Benny is a 16-year-old girl who was orphaned from mother at birth. She is the only child of Yehoshua, a religious, right wing extremist and she is at that critical juncture when she is forming her sexual, religious and political awareness. The film is set on one of Israel’s orthodox Jewish settlement where Benny has sexual awakening and ideological unraveling. This is a sensitive and assured first feature from Tsivia Barkai Yacov who also wrote the screenplay. We see a community that is rarely explored on screen. The film shows the difficulties of being a young woman in a devout patriarchal system. We also are taken into the complexity of burgeoning female desire and a complicated queer romance.
I can assure you that based upon my own experiences as an orthodox gay Jew that the film is disarmingly authentic. We have a female-centric window into the Middle East filled with intimate insights into a girl defying societal expectations. Benny’s (Avigail Kovari) outsider status is sealed from the outset, her androgynous name and blazing red hair stand out in her settlement home of Silwan in East Jerusalem. An introduction explains the significance of the feature’s title and its links to the Torah, so that we are aware of the importance of Benny’s task of caring for a newborn pure-red calf. We see the potential parallels between the girl and the animal in her care. Although Benny and her extremist father Yehoshua (Gal Toren) might not realize it at first, both are beacons of change.
According to his beliefs, Yehoshua is convinced that salvation is now imminent. When Benny searches for her own faith beyond strict religious instructional classes with the community’s other women and generally assisting her father, she finds it in a burning desire for newcomer to the settlement, Yael (Moran Rosenblatt). A fast friendship soon becomes nervous clandestine flirting, and then passionate secret trysts. The forbidden tenor of their romance is omnipresent throughout. She tells Yael even before things become physical that she is surprised by the intensity of her feelings..
It’s with naturalism and nuance that director Yacov who herself is a native of an orthodox Jewish settlement herself, conveys the teen’s emotional state. She experiences deeply-felt urges that threaten to overtake her entire life while also clashing with the teachings she’s increasingly beginning to abandon thus placing her in a precarious position should the affair be discovered. Benny’s growing distance from Yehoshua and everything he represents is also handled with subtlety— as a relationship fracturing with each passing moment, but with slow and ragged cuts. The film moves between the use of walls, fences and shadows to stress the boundaries surrounding Benny and these mirror her restless fervor.
Kovari gives a performance of internalized turmoil, and uncontainable longing. Her chemistry with Toren is palpable, their glances say everything their characters can’t.