A close-knit congregation fractures along gender lines after a catastrophe at their synagogue, in Emil Ben Shimon’s nicely observed dramedy “The Women’s Balcony.” Offering solid, middle-brow entertainment that borrows from Aristophanes’ “Lysistrata,” the film shows the relationships and tensions between different groups within Orthodox Judaism in Jerusalem, and provides a cautionary (and universally understandable) tale about religious fundamentalism. Released in Israel on September 29, it has already notched an impressive 125,000 admissions, and is on track to double that number before the hardtop run ends. Menemsha Films is circulating this Jewish-interest crowd-pleaser to U.S. fests in advance of a theatrical opening.
Beginning with a bar mitzvah and culminating with a wedding, the film focuses on a community of lively and relaxed Sephardic Jews who enjoy coming together as a community and revere their elderly spiritual leader, Rabbi Menashe (Abraham Celektar). But during the bar mitzvah of the grandson of congregational stalwarts Zion (Igal Naor) and Ettie (the magnificent Evelin Hagoel), the balcony where the women sit suddenly collapses, and the rabbi’s wife is severely injured. The rabbi is already in poor health and can’t cope with the disaster.
Lacking a place of worship as well as the services of an ordained religious leader, the men of the congregation are thrilled when the charismatic, ultra-orthodox seminarian Rabbi David (Aviv Alush) steps in. With Rabbi Menashe out of commission, Rabbi David is soon supervising the repairs to their synagogue. But when the building reopens, the women are dumbfounded to find that their bright, open balcony no longer exists, and that they are expected to attend services in a claustrophobic anteroom. Moreover, Rabbi David, who believes that all women should observe extreme modesty rules, further alienates them by implying that their sins might have provoked the accident.
While the men are captivated by Rabbi David’s sermons, the angry women set about raising money to renovate their balcony. An amusing scene in which Ettie and her friend Margalit (Einat Sarouf) negotiate with a contractor should be a teaching primer for all those who hate haggling with workmen. But when Rabbi David unilaterally decides that the money the women collected should be used to pay for new Torah scrolls rather than their construction project, it generates a rift between the sexes. As the women walk out on their menfolk and hold a public protest outside Rabbi David’s seminary, it sparks a showdown between the rigid, sometimes joyless religiosity of the ultra-orthodox and those who find pleasure in traditional ritual without being overly strict in their observance.
In a country where middle-aged women rarely appear as movie protagonists, screenwriter Shlomit Nechama (the director’s ex-wife) deserves kudos for her likeable, responsive, can-do heroines. And she smartly incorporates challenging and subversive elements into a film that is outwardly simple and charming. Using broad strokes, she establishes an environment where the main characters’ religious observation creates a sense of belonging that is closely tied to the warmth of home and family. She contrasts their heartfelt practices with the inflexible dictates of Rabbi David and his followers.
Director Ben Shimon further exploits the differences between the two groups on a visual level, contrasting the colorful dress of the women with the almost frightening black garb of the ultra-orthodox men. The tension generated by the infiltration of the ultra-orthodox into the relaxed market neighborhood of Zion is further emphasized by the appearance of pashkavils (posters serving as one of the ultra-orthodox’s few forms of mass communication) plastered on the narrow stone alleyways, and by a scowling Hasid seemingly keeping tabs on what the neighbors are doing and saying.
Hagoel’s proud and practical Ettie leads a fine ensemble cast comprised of a number of female comedians, including Orna Banay as Ettie’s outspoken pal Tikva, and on-the-rise young comic and performer Yafit Asulin as Ettie’s unmarried niece, Yaffa, who falls for Rabbi David’s assistant (Assaf Ben Shimon).
The colorful tech package is sized to look fine on screens small and large. An upbeat Mizrahi music score by Ahuva Ozeri insures that viewers will leave the theater in a joyous mood.