The Women’s Balcony – A Review by Cynthia Flores
Okay let me start this out by saying, first of all I'm not Jewish. Secondly I don't know a lot about Jewish traditions, but it doesn't matter. Being from the South, I grew up in the church and I understand the dynamics that can happen in any group of followers, especially when the leadership is at odds with the congregation. You wouldn’t think that kind of drama would make for a comedic movie, but it does.
The new foreign film The Women’s Balcony was the #1 film of the year in Israel and for good reason, it’s funny, smart, and touching. It’s the story of a small orthodox synagogue in a tiny devout orthodox village that has a great and loving congregation with a prominent balcony for the women to sit in and be a part of the services while still being separate as their beliefs dictate. At the beginning of the film they're celebrating a bar mitzvah for a young man when a section of the balcony collapses leaving the Rabbi's wife in a coma and the Rabbi in shock.
The synagogue is closed and the congregation thinks that they won’t be able to reopen it due to all the permits that it takes to get things done. The men of the congregation are trying to hold morning prayers but it takes a minimum of 10 men to have a quorum so they stand outside the doors of the place they've been given to use for meetings until they fix their place up and they ask people would you like to pray with us? Most of the people shake their heads no, but unfortunately for them someone says yes and it's Rabbi David. He runs a school teaching religious studies a few blocks up the road. At first the men are very grateful for the help that this Rabbi is offering, getting permits pushed through and having his students help do the repairs. He’s their hero and slowly the men of the congregation start changing how they behave towards their wives as this new charismatic Rabbi starts pushing his fundamentalist ways and tries to take control of the synagogue and make it his own.
Under his supervision the repairs are made and they’re having their first services in the renovated temple. However the men of the congregation fail to tell their wives that they didn't have enough money to repair the balcony instead the women are put in a small room off to the side with bars, and a tiny little window to look into the synagogue during the services. This upsets the women greatly because they feel upset at their husbands for not warning them about this set up in the first place and they're upset that they're such an afterthought.
Rabbi David confronts the women and really just berates them making them feel guilty for voicing their concerns. He even tries to make them believe that God must have been punishing them for some evil deeds that they have done otherwise the balcony wouldn't have fallen. He tells them that they should repent and be more observant of the Orthodox ways to make amends. Some of the women actually buy into the guilt trip he is preaching and become super observant turning their backs on their best friends within the group that don’t buy into what he is selling.
The rest of the film deals with how the women band together finally after they raise the money to repair the balcony and instead Rabbi David wants to use it to pay for the new church bible instead. The wives are shocked when they find out what he’s planning and let their husbands know that there will be no peace at home if they let him do this.
I will not give any spoilers but know that watching the power struggle between the young Rabbi David and the group of women is great and oddly comical as well. Seeing the women protest outside the Rabbi’s school you can’t help but take their side and cheer them on.
The Women's Balcony is a great little gem of a film, it never makes you feel like an outsider as you watch this story unfold. It takes the time needed to make you care about all these people. The director did a great job showing the tenderness between the married couples and friends so when the strife begins you see how much they have to lose.
I'm sure there are nuances that only people that are Jewish and go to temple will pick up on but that’s ok because it does such a great job of playing on universal themes of righting wrongs and fighting for what you believe in that I really think anyone would get it and enjoy this movie.
You know, that's what I love about good foreign films, they not only expose you to the customs, arts, and social institutions of other nations, they give you a closer insight into people and cultures that you otherwise wouldn’t get. And just like you didn't have to be Greek to enjoy My Big Fat Greek Wedding you don't have to be Jewish to enjoy The Women's Balcony. You just have to love good films about family, friends, and doing the right thing.
Directed by: Emil Ben-Shimon
Written By: Sholmit Nehama
Selig Rating: A
Running Time: 1hr 36 min
Limited Release at Angelika to wider release
Starring: Evelin Hagoel, Igal Naor, Itzik Cohen, Sharon Emlimelech, Avraham Aviv Alush