A Sister’s Song
(Canada, Israel 80 minutes)
Dir: Danae Elon
Programme: Canadian Feature Competition
Danae Elon’s visually sensitive doc plays like a dramatic feature. It unfolds with scenes so intimate, you can imagine that the two main characters are probably engaging in psychodrama for the camera. They are Russian-born Israelis Tatiana and Marina, sisters who have been out of touch since Tatiana became a Greek Orthodox nun. Her passion for the religion was ignited when Marina, researching a school project, asked Tatiana to join her on a visit to a Jerusalem monastery.
That was back in the 1990s. Marina now lives in Haifa, Tatiana in a Greek convent. Longing to re-connect with her sister, and perhaps even induce her to re-consider her choices, Marina travels to the convent. The doc is not some kind of cult intervention story. Marina tries to understand her sister’s position although she does worry that Tatiana is not really happy with her controlled life.
Given the film’s premise, you imagine that Marina and her mother are distressed by Tatiana’s abandonment of Judaism. But the story’s oppositions have nothing to do with a shift in religious affiliation. Elon focuses on the contradiction between leading a secular life with its apparent freedoms and a strictly regulated sequestered one. She juxtaposes Marina’s individualistic liberty against Tatiana’s submission and obedience to a higher power. Marina is a 21st century woman who lives relatively free of constriction. Tatiana claims that her way gives her “an inner freedom.”
The film’s storyline is driven by what is a kind of mission for Marina. In Greece, she reunites with her sister, and continually probes Tatiana’s assumptions, obviously hoping she can break through them. When Tatiana talks about confessing sins, she asks, “What is a sin,” seeing little opportunity for bad behaviour in the convent’s chaste, orderly environment. For the nun, sin is drifting away from God. Her choices are deeply, dramatically existential “life and death” matters. Losing God would be losing everything.
The convent is not grimly austere. Well-appointed and comfortable-looking, it nestles in a verdant mountain landscape, beautiful in a very different way from a monastery I used to climb up to on a Cyclades island.
The natural beauty that Elon skilfully captures, not to mention being intrigued by the convent’s rituals, seduces Marina. At the same time, there are signs that something is off. Despite her fixed smile, Tatiana does seem unsettled. She admits that she’s “down,” and some of her arguments sound programmed. In one scene, she won’t show Marina where she sleeps, jokingly agreeing with her sister that the location is “top secret.” In a key moment, clearly flummoxed, she stops dead in the middle of a self-justification.
The possibility of something hidden gives A Sister’s Song an edge. Perhaps it involves the convent’s mostly unseen spiritual guide, who we glimpse in an imposingly patriarchal photograph.
Finally, in the movie’s third act, Tatiana agrees to visit Israel where she reunites with her mother, who for years has been mourning the loss of her daughter. Throughout the movie, the sisters come through as an odd couple. In an early scene, Marina wriggles down a dancer’s pole just before skyping Tatiana. She dresses cool and sometimes slips on high heels. Tatiana, on the other hand, is shrouded from head to toe in ponderous black robes.
But as one of the nuns points out in the convent, the twice-divorced Marina isn’t necessarily someone who can teach her sister how to achieve perfect happiness. Throughout, the film offers unresolved questions about life choices and personal freedom. Never questioning the love and devotion the two women, despite the gulf between them, feel for each other.
A Sister’s Song is a compassionate movie that raises doubts about its characters, but never judges them.
RIDM runs Nov. 8-18.
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