NEW YORK — As a Reform Jewish man, I don’t have too much (read: any) firsthand experience with mikvahs. But I’ve seen a lot of Jewish movies, which have led me to believe these ritual cleansing baths only come in two flavors: ancient, evocatively lit stone pools where one literally soaks in the waters of our elders, or nondescript (and frankly unimpressive) tiny pools with bland tiles where you can practically smell the chlorine coming through the screen.
“Leona,” a marvelous new drama from the young Mexican-Jewish director Isaac Cherem, opens with a mikvah scene unlike any in cinema. A beautiful woman is tastefully photographed in the nude through gauzy, billowing curtains, surrounded by enormous planters of budding white flowers. She is cheered by her (female) family and friends as prayers are read.
“Now that’s how you sell a mikvah!” I called to the screen, instantly engaged, and confident that Cherem’s film would make every effort to avoid cliché.
On this measure, I was correct. “Leona,” to hear its brief summary, is a pretty straightforward story of forbidden love. Indeed, there’s even a reference to a production of “Romeo and Juliet,” at which time our lead characters roll their eyes with a “really?”
The Juliet here is Ariela (Hebrew for “lion of God” or simply “lioness,” which is “Leona” in Spanish), played by the film’s co-writer Naian González Norvind. Ariela is a 25-year-old mural painter from the Syrian Jewish community of Mexico City, and though her parents are divorced and she has no siblings, her extended family is extremely close, caring, and warm. The mikvah at the beginning is for a new bride, and at that point it’s unclear if she’s a cousin or a friend. The distinctions don’t really matter. She is part of the group, which all support one another.
It isn’t that Ariela is yearning to “get out,” or is a disbeliever. Sure, she may wince a bit at how a male elder shoots daggers at her obviously gay but closeted cousin, but she clearly loves her family. Even if they keep trying to hook her up with men who don’t really spark an interest.
And then, one day, while she is painting the side of a white, Bauhaus-ian (which therefore could easily stand-in for Tel Aviv) building, she’s approached by a handsome man. Iván (Christian Vazquez) is our Romeo and the two young people are soon smitten.
On their first date he takes her to eat pork tacos (oy!) at what looks like a legit, neighborhood lunch counter. He can’t believe she’s never been there before, so she soon lets him know why: She’s Jewish. (She wears a chain with a letter A on it, not a Star of David or other overt symbol.) “How Jewish are you?” he asks. “Uh… normal?” is the response.
And that’s it. They go out, they laugh, they talk about life (while he has a normal job, he comes from a family of artists, who warm to her) and they make love. (It’s assumed it is her first intimate encounter, but part of why this movie is so terrific is that a lot of facts are held back, making you do some of the work.)
Ariela’s mother is no dummy and soon susses she’s in love. But when she hears the name Iván the smile fades. She doesn’t scream and yell, but she initiates a community code red. Soon Ariela is sitting with a nice enough middle-aged man at a coffee shop, who starts laying on the guilt.
We came here from Syria as refugees a hundred years ago, he tells her. We had nothing and couldn’t speak the language. We thrive now because we stuck together. If you marry outside the faith, your children (when did Ariela say she wanted children?) will be ostracized.
Ariela listens patiently. She is firm that Iván is what she wants, but she doesn’t blow up at this man. The scene is essentially replayed when the big gun is called in: the local rabbi. Ariela is annoyed but polite. The rabbi doesn’t make threats but doesn’t sugarcoat it either, saying that no one can convert to join their “club.”
Soon Ariela is kicked out of her mother’s house, and her sympathetic father won’t let her stay with him. Yet she still comes for Shabbat dinners. This level of restraint and dramatic nuance is a brilliant touch by the filmmakers. The specificity of detail is what makes this such an essential movie. A weird example, but one that stuck me: one of the old aunts is holding court reading tea leaves. We’ve seen this old world Jewish cliché before. But she’s not reading tea leaves. She’s looking at the marks left in an emptied cup of espresso. Okay, so now I know, for the rest of my life, that old ladies in the Syrian Jewish community of Mexico read espresso stains instead of tea leaves. That’s something that only makes it into a movie if it’s from someone who has lived it, as Cherem has.
There’s a level of maturity and realism to this story that is thrilling. Clearly this is a movie rooting for Ariel and Iván to reject the old ways and be together. But it is not naïve enough to think this is simple.
A member of the Syrian Jewish community of Mexico City is not the same as an assimilated Jew in New York. There are somewhere between 40,000 and 50,000 Jewish people in Mexico, including the Ashkenazi population. (The Syrians used to have something of a schism between those originally from Aleppo or Damascus, but this has tamped down in recent years.) It is also, however, the group with the lowest amount of intermarriage outside of Israel. It is less than 15 percent, compared to the United States, where it’s approximately 50% in the general Jewish population to upwards of 75% for Reform Jewry.
“Leona” shows how this insular society’s expectations can be smothering, but also gives it space to show how this unity is a source of pride. The film ends as it begins, submerged in water, but representing an entire new birth. It is a great, difficult and unique piece of work, and a remarkable first effort from a team with enormous talent.