Set among a congregation of observant Jews in a quiet neighborhood in the Old City, “The Women’s Balcony” begins with a bar mitzvah and ends with a wedding.
But there’s plenty of tsuris between the celebrations, triggered by a structural collapse that shutters the synagogue and threatens the foundation of the affable community.
Things fall apart and, happily, fall back together stronger than ever in this skillfully constructed, crowd-pleasing saga of reasonableness fending off extremism, and humanism triumphing over ideology.
Emil Ben Shimon’s spirited film, from Shlomit Nehama’s warm, wise screenplay, pays unusual homage to the autonomy and power of women in Jewish religious patriarchies. “The Women’s Balcony” both honors and pokes fun at traditional roles and relationships, but it is unambiguous in its critique of an adherence to scripture that overrules fundamental values of compassion and understanding.
“The Women’s Balcony” screens on May 17, the opening night of the Washington Jewish Film Festival.
With their aged spiritual leader sidelined by shock and grief — the rebbetzin was injured when the balcony gave way, and the rabbi remains riveted to her bedside — the small congregation struggles to navigate the way forward.
The status quo is further disrupted by an ultra-Orthodox man who chances to be walking by one morning when the men are struggling to make a minyan. In a calculated twist of fate, this helpful fellow turns out to be a rabbi, and he notes the congregation’s leadership void and shrewdly moves to fill it.
Smartly, “The Women’s Balcony” doesn’t position Rabbi David (Aviv Alush) as a total opportunist and villain (even if he wears a black hat). Sure, his sermons are more conservative than his adopted flock is used to hearing, and his attitude that a women’s place is in the home is contrary to the ethos that defines and binds the congregation. But everyone interprets the Torah a little differently, don’t they?
Rabbi David issues instructions for dressing modestly in public are an affront to some of the women, while others are fine with the new discipline. This fissure between longtime friends adds a dramatic subplot whose strongest aspect is that it allows us to observe the lives of religious women when the men aren’t around.
The prevailing dynamic between husbands and wives is also challenged by Rabbi David’s teachings, of course. Zion (Igal Naor) and Ettie (Evelin Hagoel), middle-aged and deeply in love, are the main couple we get to know in “The Wedding Balcony,” and the accretion of details depicting their steady, solid relationship imbues the film with texture and heart.
The movie’s attention to Ettie and Zion (and their fellow congregants, to a lesser degree) subtly reminds us that the real problem with authoritarian philosophies and dogmatic policies is the way they affect individuals on an everyday level.
Meanwhile, the community is grateful for Rabbi David’s energy and plans for repairing and renovating the synagogue. Every successive pronouncement and act, however, excludes the women from the decision process and pushes them to the margins of their own congregation.
Rabbi David is indifferent to the idea that he has planted the seeds of a resistance, and he underestimates the women’s resolve — and their ability to strategize.
“The Women’s Balcony” deepens as it goes, smoothly combining a humanistic worldview with a timely political undercurrent. It delivers witty, intelligent and emotionally satisfying entertainment, along with a retort to Israel’s powerful religious conservatives.
“The Women’s Balcony” is in Hebrew with English subtitles, 96 minutes, unrated. It will be screened May 17 at 7 p.m. at AFI Silver Theatre, 8633 Colesville Road, Silver Spring; and May 20, 8:15 p.m. at Edlavitch DC Jewish Community Center, 1529 16th St. NW, Washington; for festival schedule, prices and tickets, go to wjff.org.
Michael Fox is a San Francisco-based film critic.
Washington Jewish Film Festival
The 27th annual Washington Jewish Film Festival will bring the Jewish experience to area screens from May 17 to 28.
The roster of films from Israel, Poland, the Netherlands, Argentina, the United States and elsewhere includes comedies and explorations of extremism and the queer experience.
Special events include honors for filmmakers Barry Levinson, Amy Heckerling and Agnieszka Holland; a community education day on the Arab citizens of Israel , and the Two Jews Walk into a Bar (and a Deli) cinematic pub crawl.
A project of the Edlavitch DC Jewish Community Center, the festival’s venues include the center, AFI Silver Theatre, Bethesda Row Cinema, E Street Cinema and the National Gallery of Art.
For schedule, ticket prices and reservations, go to wjff.org.