A community of women in a traditional culture revolt in the delightfully smart and funny Israeli comedy The Women’s Balcony. The balcony in a small Jerusalem synagogue collapses, and the building is condemned. The old rabbi’s wife is seriously injured, and he suffers a trauma-induced psychotic breakdown. Just when it looks like the leaderless congregation will die, a young and charismatic rabbi (Avraham Aviv Alush) appears, enlivens the congregation and repairs the building. But he rebuilds the synagogue WITHOUT the women’s section. Profoundly disrespected, the synagogue’s women strike in protest.
The women live in a culture where males have all the power and religious authority trumps all. The women all have their individually distinct gifts, personalities and rivalries. But they all appreciate the injustice of the situation, and they are really pissed off. They are very creative in finding way to leverage the power that they do have, and the result is very, very funny.
This could have been a very broad comedy (and a Lysistrata knock-off). Instead, it’s richly textured, with an examination of ethical behavior and loving relationships. It’s also dotted with comments on the relations between Israeli Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox and on the importance of food in this culture. It’s the first – and very promising – feature for both director Emil Ben-Shimon and writer Shlomit Nehana.
There are plenty LOL moments, including a scene where one of the congregants masquerades as the demented old rabbi to secure the needed psychotropic meds.
We soon understand that the young rabbi has a very unattractive side – grossly sexist and power-hungry. But he has seduced the men and then cows them by manipulating his religious authority. He’s tearing apart a closely bound community braided together by decades of deep friendship and inter-reliance. The movie turns on whether the men can recognize when his supposed righteousness veers into what is really unethical and, in one pivotal scene with the old rabbi, indecent.
Two of the male characters, deeply in love with their women, step up and do the right thing. This overt comedy has a very a romantic core.
Most of all, The Women’s Balcony is about mature relationships. Most of these couples have been married for decades, especially the couple at the core of the story, Ettie (Evein Hagoel) and Zion (Igal Naor). Ben-Shimon and Nehana prove themselves to be keen and insightful observers of long-lasting relationships.
A righteous man must keep his woman happy. This may not be written in the Holy Scriptures, but it’s damn useful advice. (It also helps, we learn, if he can make a mean fruit salad.) The longer you’ve been married, the funnier you’ll find The Women’s Balcony.