Film Review: The Women's Balcony

A deceptively simple, subtle comedy centering on a rift between men and women, fundamentalists and the less than ultra-Orthodox in a small Israeli Orthodox congregation.
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The Women’s Balcony is an utterly charming, good-humored peek into the warring factions within one small, closely knit Israeli Orthodox congregation whose membership is dwindling and whose synagogue has seen better days.

At a bar mitzvah, the balcony, where the women sit segregated from the men, collapses and the whole building is deemed uninhabitable, sparking an internal feud between religious fundamentalists and the more liberal-minded. The combatants are largely split along gender lines, leading to a Lysistrata-like act of feminist defiance as the women leave their husbands en masse.

Contrary to expectation, the women do not view separate seating as a sign of second-class status at all. (That might be an American spin.) Here, they like their balcony and want it restored in the new synagogue. The problem is limited funds, and far more serious, their own beloved Rabbi Menashe (Abraham Celektar)—who makes all decisions and would undoubtedly view the balcony restoration as essential—is out of the picture. Thanks to the major injury his wife sustained when the balcony gave way, he is incapable of adjudicating anything. She is not recovering and neither is he.

His absence has created a ready-made opening, and the leadership-free congregation is more than welcoming to the beguiling ultra-Orthodox seminarian Rabbi David (Avraham Aviv Alush), who arrives on the scene and takes the helm, most pointedly overseeing the rebuilding of the synagogue.

In his view, women can pray in the outer lobby or not at all. He embodies the religious dogma—and its one held by many Hasidim—that, unlike men, women are already in touch with God because they can create life and as such prayer is not as essential for them. He also contends that the women in this particular community do not maintain the most kosher homes nor dress with sufficient modesty, and thus through their own transgressions the balcony collapsed. It’s their fault.

Nobody is fully comfortable with Rabbi David, though it takes the men a little longer to catch on.He even manages to convince some of the women that he may be right. Suddenly they are covering their heads (knees, collarbones and elbows) more completely, adhering to the religious rituals in stricter fashion and shunning Ettie (the always wonderful Evelin Hagoel), who can’t stand the new rabbi, voices her dissent and spearheads a fundraising campaign for the balcony. Ultimately, the women come onboard and successfully generate the necessary cash. But Rabbi David will have none of it, unilaterally deciding the money should be spent on new Torah scrolls—and that’s when the battle lines are drawn.

Balcony is a deceptively simple, nuanced comedy tackling some heady topics without ever becoming a polemic. If anything, it’s an argument for moderation in the face of extremism. Even Rabbi David, clearly the villain of the piece, is not without appeal, whatever his flaws. The light touch throughout is all the more remarkable as it’s the work of first=timers, screenwriter Shlomit Nechama and director Emil Ben-Shimon.

According to Nechama, the film depicts specific communities in the Bukharan Quarter of Jerusalem that until fairly recently were rigidly Orthodox. But as the forces of modern life encroached, some traditional practices have disappeared, inevitably resulting in loss of religion or even secularism on the one hand and extreme Orthodoxy on the other. Some members of the community see ultra-Orthodoxy as the needed antidote, while to other factions it’s simply repellent.

Life in Balcony is joyous, the holidays are celebrated with enthusiasm, and there’s much love among members of the community until the interlopers arrive breeding distrust and suspicion everywhere. Changes abound, including the sporadic appearance of a payos-sporting silent observer whom (one assumes) is a spy of sorts for the ultra-Orthodox.

Their uniform look—in stark contrast to the almost haphazard mismatched clothes worn by everyone else—further hints at their authoritarianism. So do their proclamation-asserting posters abruptly appearing on alleyway walls that function as communal message boards. The Internet and its ubiquitous social-media platforms are forbidden.

When the film opened in Israel this past November it was a surprise hit, garnering five nominations from the Israeli Film Academy, an Oscar equivalent. Since that time it’s been making its way across the festival circuit, earning positive notices. It’s a film about a tiny subculture yet should have broad-based appeal.  

The Women’s Balcony is a feel-good flick, opening with the aforementioned ill-fated bar mitzvah and ending with a wedding. Ahuva Ozeri’s Mizrahi musical backdrop is the perfect complement. Scenes of lived-in apartments and ancient, winding streets are vividly shot by cinematographer Ziv Berkovich. And the top-notch cast has forged a classic example of fine ensemble acting.

Click here for cast and crew information.