From Israeli filmmaker Tsivia Barkai Yacov, Red Cow (Para Aduma) is a rousing directorial debut with striking autobiographical influences. The film explores the coming-of-age of a Jewish girl living in an illegal settlement in Jerusalem, and her tumultuous relationships with both her father and the young woman she finds herself attracted to.
Benny (Avigail Kovari) lives a modest, devout life with her father Yehoshua (Gal Toren), her mother having passed away at the time of her birth. A religious extremist, Yehoshua is concerned with a rare red heifer calf which will be raised for sacrifice as a commencement of the Third Temple. He tasks Benny with looking after the cow, which she names Emerald and comes to care for, but Benny’s mind is elsewhere. Preoccupied with her sexuality, she becomes interested in a young woman named Yael (Moran Rosenblatt) – a national service teacher – and the two quickly grow closer. Their relationship develops amidst political and religious tensions in the community, and Benny finds herself increasingly disillusioned with her father’s beliefs.
Though a little slow to start, Yacov’s film gathers confidence in strides, painting a nuanced, intimate portrait of teen sexuality and conflict of identity. As Benny realises her sexual agency and becomes bolder in her desire for Yael, she withdraws from her father, knowing that he will not approve and seeking to rebel. Yacov’s own experiences as a teenager inspired parts of Benny’s story, and she reflected in an interview that Yehoshua’s fixation with the sacred calf, in turn, sacrifices his relationship with his daughter. Avigail Kovari’s performance as Benny is both reserved and self-assured; though Benny is sheltered by her Orthodox upbringing, she has an innate sense of her own desire that propels her liberation. The burgeoning relationship between Benny and Yael, though far from blissfully romantic, feels authentic and deeply personal.
Red Cow is a sombre, understated film that navigates personal tragedy and sexual awakening within repressive communities without resorting to exploitative violence or melodrama as many such narratives do. This does not downplay the emotional weight of Benny’s experience, but rather draws us inside her head instead of favouring the perspective of those who would ostracise her. Benny is resolute and very much in charge of her own future; though it remains uncertain, she finds the strength to make her own choices and set herself free.
by Megan Wilson