Characters’ romantic hungers provide satisfying fare

Romance is the theme for this month’s book and DVD selections. The novel “e-male,” by the authors known as scott & scott (aka the “romentics”), is an agreeable beach read. Meanwhile, on video, both “The Secrets,” a lesbian drama set in the Orthodox Jewish community, and the Brazilian film “Alice’s House,” directed by the openly gay filmmaker Chico Teixeira, feature characters filled with romantic longing.

The romentics have penned a fun, fluffy read about Kory, a diner waiter who secretly runs an Internet dating service called “e-male,” hence the book’s title. When he believes Zac, the owner of Djorvzac Travel, wants to buy his company, Kory — a master of the perfect match — goes to make a smart business deal. However, Zac has no intention to merge companies. Kory is infuriated but intrigued by Zac, and they spontaneously act on their mutual dislike by having a “hate fuck” right there in Zac’s office.

However, Zac and Kory soon agree to collaborate on a vacation in Baytown Beach, where Beach Ball, an annual circuit party, takes place. The trip, of course, allows the pair to get to know one another, and they share secrets in secluded locations. These two characters may hide behind the fantasies of others, but this quality actually makes their intimate moments rather endearing.

The hate-fuckers soon come to feel something that readers — if not the characters — recognize as love.

Enter Trevor, a professional club boy who was an intimate of Zac. He challenges Zac to a winner-takes-all box-dancing competition that could give Trevor possession of both Zac and Kory’s companies. Needless to say, Zac and Kory bond with the hope of beating Trevor, and Zac teaches Kory how to dance using methods straight out of “Dirty Dancing.” Yet Kory soon has his doubts about Zac and his plan to beat Trevor. Feeling manipulated, Kory soon starts manipulating Zac right back, using his dating Web site.

“E-male” follows its own crazy plot logic on the way to an unsurprising but pleasing conclusion. Readers will breeze through this undemanding novel, though they might stop and laugh at purple-prosed descriptions such as disco balls looking “like glitter-encrusted testicles.”

“The Secrets” is an ambitious, if over-plotted, Israeli drama about Naomi (Ania Bukstein), a beautiful young Orthodox woman engaged to be married. However, Naomi wants to postpone the wedding so she can go to seminary.

Michel (Michal Shtamler) is a beautiful young Orthodox woman who smokes and causes trouble. She does not want to be at the seminary, but reluctantly enters with the hope of finding a match. Of course, Naomi and Michel hate each other at first, but they soon bond when they are asked to care for Anouk (Fanny Ardant), a dying French woman.

Anouk, they discover, has served 15 years in prison for murder, and she now seeks help from Naomi and Michel to atone for her sins. Soon the two students start taking Anouk on secret kabbalistic rituals, such as cleansing her in a hot bath and vigorously praying for her health and reparation.

While the students help Anouk reveal her hidden truths, Naomi and Michel discover some secrets of their own. Sharing a night in bed together, a request for a back scratch turns into something more erotic, and Naomi acknowledges her same-sex desires. Michel, in response, becomes frightened by them, and tension mounts between the two women. Is what they are doing against God?

“The Secrets,” co-written and directed by Avi Nesher, is clumsily plotted and directed, but the politics — sexual and otherwise — of this very-watchable film recommend it. Although her father, a rabbi, warns Naomi not to let her emotional state dictate her life, she does just that, following her heart despite all the unhappiness it might cause. The subplot involving Anouk cleansing herself by admitting the truth of her past provides a good counterbalance to Naomi’s story of secret desire.

Unfortunately, the mostly broad performances (Ardent is especially hammy here) teeter on campiness. Much of “The Secrets” feels stagy and fake, even when it is being sincere. An awkward dinner-table scene during which Michel’s date gets the tablecloth caught in his fly is especially clunky. It’s hard to take the film seriously when it gets silly. Nevertheless, the messages about love and faith ring true, even if the overall execution is less than graceful.

As the title character in “Alice’s House,” Carla Ribas gives a superb, award-winning performance; she’s reason enough to seek out this simple yet transfixing Brazilian family drama. It is almost impossible to watch this film and be unaffected by her outstanding portrait of a desperate working-class housewife.

Written and directed by openly gay Chico Teixeira, the film is presented in near-documentary style, opening with images of Alice’s claustrophobic apartment, which she shares with her mother Jacira (Berta Zemel), her husband Lindomar (Zecarlos Machado) and their three hunky (and often shirtless) sons, Lucas (Vinicius Zinn), Edhino (Ricardo Vilaca) and Junior (Felipe Massuia).

There are considerable tensions in the household, and they unfold to form this largely plotless drama. Alice is a woman who, after years of taking care of others, wants to find someone to take care of her. When she meets Nilson (Luciano Quirino), the husband of a client at the beauty shop where she works, Alice recognizes him as a man from her past. She begins an affair with Nilson in part to escape her domestic angst.

If “Alice’s House” plays like a melodrama — or a gussied-up Brazilian telenovela — that’s because it is. There are clichés involving Jacira finding evidence of Lindomar’s sexual conquests in his wallet while she does the laundry, and a pair of birds in a cage that are potent symbols for Alice and her mother, who are trapped in their domestic positions as Brazilian women are. However, this film rises above these conventions to become something considerably profound. Teixeira wants to show not just why his characters are anguished, but also how they cope with it.

The film’s grittiness is as palpable as Alice’s despair, and watching it is fascinating. The rhythms of her routine are hypnotic, and audiences will get caught up in this compelling family drama even as they long for some relief to all the suffering.