Let’s give three cheers for the gallant, feisty women depicted in “The Women’s Balcony,” and let’s give another three for the film itself, a captivating, entertaining import from Israel. Although it delves into the serious problems of rigid Orthodoxy, the tone is spiritedly amusing and graced with appealing performances portraying women who rise up against their being shunted aside and overridden. It is clearly in tune with efforts to defend and expand women’s rights the world over these days.
Trouble begins during a bar mitzvah when the women’s balcony in an Orthodox synagogue in a Jerusalem neighborhood collapses and seriously injures the rabbi’s wife as well as leaving the place a shambles. The elderly rabbi has been ill and somewhat out of it, and therefore is unable to rise to the need for leadership in restoring the synagogue.
Enter the at-large young Rabbi David, played with smooth, seductive villainy by Aviv Alush, who worms his way into leadership of the congregation and attempts to impose his ultra-Orthodox ideas. He delivers fierce, fundamentalist sermons that appeal mainly to the men and treats women as totally inferior. He orders them how to dress and even blames the fall of the balcony on women’s alleged immodesty. Instead of a reconstructed balcony, the women find themselves confined to an area that resembles a jail cell.
Banding together, women raise money for a new balcony, but Rabbi David schemes to appropriate the money and use it for new Torah scrolls that he deems more important in the eyes of God. But he doesn’t realize the gathering force that he will be up against.
Screenwriter Shlomit Nehama and director Emil Ben-Shimon give the film a warm but comedic touch when the woman fight for control, drive out Rabbi David and get their balcony back. Along the way there is even a romance and a welcome assist by a principled young man in the mix, all adding to the enjoyment.
Two especially appealing performances come from Einat Sarouf as Margalit and Evelin Hagoel as Ettie, friends and companions in battle. But the entire cast is well chosen, and the characters well delineated in the busily plotted doings.
“The Women’s Balcony” is reported to be a major box office success in Israel, and it is easy to see why. The film taps into fights involving different and competitive religious outlooks and the effect on members of a community closely tied to religious life. Instead of being pedantic, the film clips along at an amusing pace and enlists audience sympathy, and there is a nifty ending.
To parallel an old advertising slogan once said about rye bread, you don’t have to be Jewish to appreciate the issues and enjoy this film. Of course, it can’t hurt. A Menemsha Films release. Reviewed May 23, 2017.