These days, if you want to see a sweet little movie, upbeat but not saccharine, about humans just being human, you're more likely to find it outside the U.S. That description applies very well to The Women's Balcony, a major hit in its native Israel, which is scheduled to leave Vermont on Friday after a week's run. While it's nothing groundbreaking, this comedy-drama from director Emil Ben-Shimon and writer Shlomit Nehama — formerly married to each other, both TV veterans — is a highly likable portrait of, among other things, marriage. It's also a surprisingly apt tale for our American cultural moment.
"Surprisingly" because The Women's Balcony is set in a community with which few Americans are familiar: an Orthodox congregation in the Bukharan neighborhood of Jerusalem. While some of the group's customs may seem foreign, its core dynamics are familiar.
The film opens with the close-knit congregation meeting up, gossiping and checking out one another's potluck offerings on the way to synagogue. Type-A matriarch Ettie (Evelin Hagoel) frets about the details of her grandson's bar mitzvah, but she'll soon have graver problems to concern her. During the ceremony, the balcony where the women worship crashes to the floor, leaving the rabbi's wife in a coma.
The aged rabbi, who's losing his grasp on reality, can offer little help as the congregation regroups and rebuilds. Into the leadership vacuum steps handsome, well-spoken young Rabbi David (Avraham Aviv Alush) from the neighboring ultra-Orthodox seminary. He's happy to take over. But in the synagogue restored under his direction, the women find no balcony for them — just an outdoor enclosure that effectively bars them from worship.
When Rabbi David's not smiling radiantly, he speaks a dark language of the wages of sin, suggesting that the congregation's small deviations from biblical dictates might have caused its misfortune. At his prodding, some of the women begin covering their heads, and minor infractions of the Sabbath — such as enlisting a gentile neighbor to fix a tripped breaker — are no longer tolerated.
None of this is remotely acceptable to Ettie, who spearheads a movement by the women to regain their place in the synagogue, even as the conflict drives a wedge into her own marriage with the gentle Zion (Igal Naor). Hagoel gives a fierce, nuanced performance as the defender of a status quo defined by moderation, humaneness and faith in a God who wants people to think for themselves. Through a series of low-key comic and romantic interludes, the film suggests that compromise and work-arounds are just part of being human.
The Women's Balcony resolves its central conflict a bit too quickly and neatly, but the theme of battle for the soul of a community resonates — at least with many American critics, who have praised the movie's "universal" themes.
Quoted in a recent piece in the New York Jewish Week about the film's very different critical receptions in the U.S. and Israel, writer Nehama pinpoints the theme that seems to make The Women's Balcony powerful right now: "the crumbling of middle grounds." When ideological polarization is the norm and extremists seize center stage, doctrines of moderation may seem woefully inadequate, with all the listening, learning and negotiating they entail.
But not in this film. Ettie makes her stand — with picket signs — on a vanishing middle ground that reconciles religion with a certain pragmatic humanism. Even the most secular viewers may find the quiet determination with which her community expels a savior-turned-spoiler downright inspirational.