Susan Granger’s review of “The Women’s Balcony” (Menemsha Films)
The highest-grossing film in Israel in the past three years, this good-hearted, yet provocative comedic drama is about the power of women in a battle against modern religious fundamentalism.
Set in an older Orthodox Jewish community in Jerusalem, it begins with a celebration as Etti (Evelin Hagoel) and Zion (Igal Naor), along with the rest of their close-knit congregation, parade from their homes through the streets to the synagogue for the Bar Mitzvah of their grandson.
Suddenly, during the service, the synagogue’s sex-segregated balcony for female worshippers, collapses. The wife of elderly Rabbi Menache (Abraham Celektar) is hospitalized in a coma, leaving him confused and depressed.
Awkwardly gathering in the only space available, the male members of the Mizrahi congregation don’t have the 10 men needed for a minyan when, seemingly out of nowhere, appears Rabbi David (Avraham Aviv Alush) with some of his seminary students.
Soon fanatically zealous Rabbi David is not only supervising the reconstruction of their synagogue but also reprimanding the women for their immodesty, urging them to cover their hair, and insinuating that the accident occurred because of the sins of the women.
When the women realize that there’s no place for them in the newly rebuilt synagogue, they raise money for a new balcony, only to discover that patriarchal Rabbi David intends to spend their funds on a new Torah scroll.
That incites a female rebellion, bravely led by determined Etti – reminiscent of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata. Plus, there’s a romantic subplot involving Etti’s niece (Yafit Asulin) who falls in love with Rabbi David’s assistant (Assaf Ben Shimon).
Screenwriter Shlomit Nehama grew up in a religious family in Jerusalem and was inspired by the women in her neighborhood. And according to director Emil Ben-Shimon: “This film raises questions about whether every believer can choose his or own path of faith…and the price of extremism.”
In Hebrew with English subtitles, on the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Women’s Balcony” is a celebratory 6, offering a revelatory glimpse into a compelling dilemma.