Barren is a powerful and beautiful film about the vulnerability of infertile women in religious communities obsessed with the command to be fruitful and multiply.
The “barren” woman at the center of this film is Feigi (Mili Eshet), a 24-year- old who has been married for four years and has not yet become pregnant, despite an active and satisfying love life. While her husband is in Uman on a pilgrimage to Rabbi Nachman’s grave for the high holidays, Feigi is spiritually seduced and then sexually assaulted by a rabbi who claims that he can unblock her uncooperative reproductive system.
Barren, which premiered at the Jerusalem Film Festival and is now making the rounds of U.S. Jewish films festivals, is Mordechai Vardi’s first fictional feature film, and he hopes that it will expose the plight of women like Feigi and be a catalyst for communal conversation. His 2020 documentary Marry Me However, about the pressure put upon gay Orthodox men to marry women, also does important feminist work within the context of Haredi life. In that film, Vardi is sensitive to the suffering not only of gay men who live a lie but also to the women who unwittingly end up in faux marriages. Although religious life can be a powerful source of community, it can also be overbearing.
In Barren, contrary to Feigi’s wishes, she and Naftali ( Yoav Rotman) live with his parents, where she chafes against the lack of privacy and the seemingly omnipresent judgment of Bilhah, her mother-in-law (Ilanit Ben-Yaakov). The attendant at the mikvah lets Feigi know that she prays for her to become pregnant. And when Feigi first encounters the wandering Rabbi Eliyahu (Gil Frank), who has been invited into the household by her father-in-law, he questions her about her reproductive challenges. The viewer shares with Feigi the exhaustion of having the state of her womb under constant surveillance.
A reserved and modest Haredi woman, Feigi initially keeps her distance from Rabbi Eliyahu. However, she responds to his assurances that she is like her reproductively challenged biblical foremothers and is experiencing obstacles prior to divinely inspired great births. When his shofar-blowing healing ritual enfeebles him and causes him to declare that she is profoundly blocked, he makes his next nefarious move and, claiming that he is healing her, rapes her. This is not only a sensitively filmed sexual assault interrupted by Bilhah but also a powerful metaphor for the barren state of religious patriarchy.
The aftermath of this violation turns on Feigi’s experience with victim-blaming. When her husband returns from Uman and recoils from his wife whom he now considers impure, she defends herself by telling him that she was paralyzed. And when a rabbinical court convenes to decide whether the couple can remain “man and wife,” she responds to questions about her “agreement” by saying she was taught to regard the words of rabbis as holy and that she “didn’t know there could be an evil rabbi.” However, during the rape scene, she tells Eliyahu that this so-called treatment is “forbidden,” and she clearly says “No.” Poignantly and disturbingly, even she doesn’t register her instinctive and righteous resistance to a rabbinical predator.
The rabbinical debate about this case takes up considerable screen time and reflects the fact that Vardi is not only a director but also a rabbi himself. While one rabbi insists that this is not a rape since there was “consent through silence,” another argues that “rape is not only the use of force” and that the use of Torah and Halakhah (Jewish law) must not be complicit with such a crime.
Despite being accused of talking out of turn and of letting emotion cloud his judgment, the rabbi succeeds in getting the court to uphold his position. Given that Barren is based on real-life cases, the activist import of this religious court scene and its outcome should not be underestimated.
While Barren features rabbinical heroes and villains, Haredi women hold their own onscreen. Initially Bilhah seems to be a rigid and controlling monster of a mother-in-law; however, she is revealed to be a wise and complicated figure. After the sexual assault, she cares for Feigi emotionally and physically. She also takes both her husband and her son to task for their obtuseness about Feigi’s trauma. And in her role as a professional match- maker, Bilhah, like the progressive rabbi, demonstrates a worldly capaciousness not generally depicted as part of Haredi life.
One of the most beautiful parts of this film occurs during Yom Kippur. While Feigi’s in-laws are devoutly reciting the confessional prayers in a gender-segregated shul, Feigi is in a forest desperately crying out “Why?” to G-d. In Barren, infertility initiates a crisis of faith that is worsened rather than relieved by religious community. Like her biblical forebears, Feigi seems to lose her way in the wilder- ness but is redeemed by her exercise of free will and by Jewish paradox. Viewers willing to join her on this spiritual journey will not be disappointed.
Helene Meyers is author of Movie-Made Jews: An American Tradition.