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Israel’s increasingly tense conflict between ultra-Orthodox Judaism and more liberal factions receives a lighthearted, entertaining treatment in Emil Ben-Shimon’s debut feature. Depicting the internal struggles of a Jerusalem temple’s congregation, The Women’s Balcony proves surprisingly accessible despite the specificity of its milieu. The charming film has become a major box-office hit in its native country and should find receptive domestic audiences in areas with large Jewish populations.
The plot is set in motion when a balcony set aside for female worshippers collapses during a bar mitzvah, rendering the rundown synagogue unusable until it can be rebuilt. The accident leaves the temple’s beloved, elderly rabbi (Abraham Celektar) in a near-catatonic state after he discovers that his wife has been seriously injured.
The tight-knit congregation moves to a temporary home, but its distant location makes it difficult to attract the 10 men needed to fulfill a minyan. So when a potential savior comes along in the form of the young and charismatic ultra-Orthodox Rabbi David (Aviv Alush), who offers to lead prayers and personally take charge of the reconstruction project, the members happily agree.
But when the new temple is unveiled, the women discover, to their horror, that their balcony has been eliminated and they’re to be relegated to a claustrophobic, adjoining space. Also disturbing is Rabbi David’s insinuation that their impure ways caused the balcony to collapse in the first place. They manage to raise the funds necessary to restore the balcony to the building, only to see him decree that the money be used for new Torah scrolls instead. So they decide to rebel in Lysistrata fashion, declaring war on their husbands and threatening to leave them if they don’t get their balcony back.
Shlomit Nechama’s screenplay makes the proceedings compelling while mining gentle humor from the foibles of the mostly endearing characters, expertly played by the large ensemble. Distinctly told from a female viewpoint, the story features such subtly resonant moments as a congregant, ignoring the laws of the Sabbath, surreptitiously turning on a coffeemaker that has been accidentally shut off by a little boy, and the bar mitzvah youth, convinced the accident was his fault because he failed to learn his Torah portion, confessing that he prayed for a way out of his predicament.
Director Ben-Shimon’s light touch prevents the film from lapsing either into polemics or overly broad comic shtick. Instead, the film gives all the characters their due — even Rabbi David, who never devolves into a cardboard villain — with the result that The Women’s Balcony, thanks also in part to its jaunty musical score, emerges as a surprisingly feel-good comedy.
Production company: Pie Films
Distributor: Menemsha Films
Cast: Orna Banay, Itzik Cohen, Einat Sarouf, Igal Naor, Evelin Hagoel, Aviv Alush, Yafit Asulin, Sharona Elimelech, Herzl Tobey, Haim Zanati
Director: Emil Ben-Shimon
Screenwriter: Shlomit Nechama
Producers: Osnat Handelsman-Keren, Talia Kleinhendler
Director of photography: Ziv Berkovich
Editor: Einat Glaser Zarhin
Costume designer: Rona Doron
Composer: Ahuva Ozeri, Shaul Besser
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