Barren [NYJFF 2023]

In partnership with The Jewish Museum, The New York Jewish Film Festival has returned to Lincoln Center for its 32nd year. Taking place January 12 – 23, 2023, this edition of the festival presents 21 features from around the world that explore the Jewish experience. TV and City is attending and will be covering several NYJFF titles.

By Elazar Abrahams

Barren, an Israeli drama screening virtually at this year’s New York Jewish Film Festival, is the story of Feigi and Naftali, a young ultra-Orthodox couple struggling with fertility issues. Naftali travels to Uman, Ukraine for Rosh Hashanah to pray for a child, leaving Feigi alone with his parents. Another unexpected guest is there too, a suspicious “rabbi” who claims to be a healer of barren women. On what is considered one of the holiest nights of the Jewish year, he sneaks into Feigi’s bed and sexually exploits her.

The film is effective at tugging on viewers’ heartstrings, placing its characters in very emotional and grave situations. This is a heavy film with heavy themes. The acting reflects that, with a lot of the cast turning in muted performances, and the lack of flashiness among them makes the moments where they do yell or get visibly frustrated all the more powerful.

I found Barren to be paced very wisely. The assault isn’t drawn out or teased as an eleventh hour twist — Feigi’s trauma happens in the first act, and the rest of the movie follows her and the extended family working through that horrid event and picking up the pieces of their lives. Naftali is upset and at first blames Feigi. He’ll eventually learn to not fault her, as she is obviously the victim here, but it’s an upsetting character arc. The couple’s journey is brutal, encompassing crises of belief, conscience, and intimacy.

Director Mordechai Vardi also excels at posing questions of faith without asking them explicitly. The story unmasks the vulnerability of women living in religious isolation, but Vardi isn’t too heavy handed with his messaging, instead letting the work speak for itself. The story wraps up a little too neatly for my liking, in reality these characters would be grappling with the outcome of the rape for far longer. Still, Barren packs a lot into its scope and is mostly successful.

‘Barren’ is streaming online via the New York Jewish Film Festival on January 23. Get tickets and more information HERE.