August 6, 2020  (Web Review)

Red Cow

Kino Lorber, 92 min., in Hebrew w/ English subtitles, not rated, DVD: $19.99, Blu-ray: $29.99, Jun. 9

Reviewer rating: 3.0/4

An overprotected Israeli teenager yearns to breathe free in Tsivia Barkai Yacov’s assured feature-film debut. Seventeen-year-old redhead Benny (Avigail Kovari, very good) never knew her mother, who died in childbirth. She was raised primarily by her late grandmother. She and her fundamentalist father, Yehoshua (Gal Toren), a religious teacher and mentor, live in the Jewish section of Silwan, an Arab neighborhood in East Jerusalem. They’re close, but Benny’s life is so entwined with Yehoshua’s that she hasn’t had the opportunity to forge her own identity and establish her own set of beliefs. Every moment of their waking lives is dedicated to the practice of Orthodox Judaism. One day, Yehoshua announces that he has purchased a red calf. “You’ll be her friend,” he reasons, “and she’ll be our salvation.” (The film is set in the 1990s, just prior to the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.) Benny proceeds to look after the rust-colored calf who occupies an enclosure overlooking the town. When the time comes, Yehoshua plans to slaughter it as a sacrifice to an all-Jewish state. On the surface, Benny is a dutiful daughter, but she smokes with her school friends, something the strict, but caring Yehoshua would never tolerate. When Yael (Moran Rosenblatt), a pretty brunette, moves into the settlement, Benny finds someone who feels as much like a misfit as she does. Though they’re around the same age, Yael is more mature, more experienced, and more self-possessed. She’s also beholden to Yehoshua for finding her housing and a job as a tour guide. If she brings dishonor to her benefactor, it’s unlikely she’ll be able to stay. At first, she and Benny are just swimming buddies, but friendship gradually turns to lust and maybe even to love. Benny is covert at first, but as her feelings embolden her, she takes more chances. It’s clear that she wants to be demonstrative with Yael in public, but she doesn’t live in a world where a same-sex relationship would be possible. As she pushes against the strictures that confine her, something has to give, and it does, but Red Cow isn’t a tragedy. Writer-director Barkai Yacov could have depicted Yehoshua as the bad guy, but she doesn’t. It’s clear that he’s lonely, but his religious practice leaves no room for a partner. In some ways, Benny is her own worst enemy, since she doesn’t realize how cruel she can be when things don’t go her way, but the ending suggests that it isn’t too late for her to change–even if it is too late for her father. The symbolism of the red cow seems a little heavy-handed, since marriage would surely end Benny’s autonomy, but this isn’t one of those films where an animal has to suffer in order for its caretaker to become a more decent human being. Recommended. (K. Fennessy)