"THE WOMEN'S BALCONY" — 3 stars — Avraham Aviv Alush, Yafit Asulin, Orna Banai, Sharon Elimelech, Evelin Hagoel, Einat Sarouf; not rated; Broadway
"The Women's Balcony" tells the charming story of a Jewish congregation that is thrown into chaos after a freak accident incapacitates its rabbi.
As the film opens, a day of celebration takes a near-tragic turn when the women's balcony of an aging synagogue collapses in the middle of a bar mitzvah. The only casualty of the incident is the rabbi's wife, who is hospitalized in a coma, but the emotional and psychological effect is so substantial on her husband that the congregation soon finds itself leaderless.
A neighboring rabbi (Avraham Aviv Alush) offers his synagogue for worship, and gradually fills in more and more of the congregation's rabbinical duties while others work to repair the dilapidated building. But Rabbi David, who also teaches at a nearby seminary, proves to be much more orthodox than the man he's covering for. When he encourages the husbands in his congregation to give their wives head scarves, the gifts are not all well-received and, even as a guest in a member's home for Passover, he objects to the use of a Sabbath gentile.
What's worse, when the building is remodeled, the female members of his congregation are horrified to discover that their balcony has been removed altogether.
From here, tensions steadily rise between the congregation and Rabbi David, who starts to exert more and more influence on his involuntary flock. When the women raise money to build a new balcony, he tries to divert it toward the production of a new Bible scroll. Tensions also build between the male and female members of the congregation, pitting husbands against wives in a futile standoff that ultimately blossoms into a street protest.
"The Women's Balcony" is more of an ensemble piece, spreading its story among the congregation rather than zeroing in on a particular protagonist. While director Emil Ben-Shimon's film explores the relationships of several couples, we spend the most time with a local shopkeeper named Zion (Igal Naor) and his wife, Ettie (Evelin Hagoel), who more or less act as the elder statesmen of the congregation. As a bonus, their daughter Yaffa (Yafit Asulin) begins dating one of Rabbi David's students at the seminary.
The drama that plays out while the congregation waits for its original rabbi's mental health to improve is peppered with enough humor to keep the story from collapsing under its own emotional weight. In one memorable scene, several wives confront a repair contractor and renegotiate his bid in a verbal exchange so swift and skilled even the contractor barely understands what's happening.
There are also plenty of sweet moments that emerge from a story about people who, even in conflict, have their hearts in the right place. "The Women's Balcony" is a rare contemporary film that can explore issues like religious devotion and gender relationships without making anyone involved feel targeted or discarded. It manages to reflect the conflict of our day without bringing too much contention along for the ride.
"The Women's Balcony" is not rated, but would probably receive a PG rating for thematic material; it is presented in Hebrew with English subtitles; running time: 96 minutes.