Daring and bold are descriptions usually reserved for films that depict extreme and often transgressive images, characters and situations. Yet The Women’s Balcony, a warm feel-good dramatic comedy set in a traditional Sephardic Orthodox community in Jerusalem, is brave and bold – and lots of fun!
Opening with a celebration, women and men, old and young, decked out in their finest clothes, walk towards the synagogue bearing platters of food, to celebrate the Bar Mitzvah of Osher, Ettie (Evelin Hagoel) and Zion’s (Igal Naor) grandson. There’s a strong feeling of community harmony as everyone shares in the joy. When disaster strikes, and the women’s balcony collapses in the midst of the services, they all feel the pain of the blow. How will the community recover? The physical and emotional trauma are compounded by the significant impact to the life of the community: until the synagogue is repaired, they do not have a place to gather and pray.
Help arrives in the form of Rabbi David. The handsome young rabbi takes their plight very seriously, and wants to help them in every way. He not only comes up with the money needed for the repairs, but offers them his own interpretation of the event (why was it the women’s balcony that collapsed?) and Jewish law. A charismatic leader with considerable oratory and practical skills, the men of the community, and many of the women are drawn into his influence.
Daring in its portrayal of a rabbi preying on the vulnerability of the community, and their reverence for his authority, The Women’s Balcony resonates with relevance to the current political-religious climate in Israel. The exploration of this sensitive theme is all the more profound as it is observed from within a religiously observant community struggling with questions of interpretation, belief, and authority. Questions of interpretation reach deep into the core of any religion, sometimes resulting in animosity and suspicion between different factions, each believing that their way is the only true way. The film reflects the diversity of Jewish beliefs and customs within the different communities living side by side in Jerusalem – Ashkenazi and Sephardic, Modern Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox and everything in between.
Even bolder is the film’s portrayal of women. The plot centers on middle-aged, married women, and dares to depict them with respect. Women who are not ravishingly beautiful, or devastatingly intelligent, or hugely successful with prominent careers. Ordinary women who are vital, active, and strong. Women who laugh and love. Women who care about their community and will fight for their beliefs. Women who are not afraid to disagree, to go against majority opinion, to criticize one another and continue to believe in one another. Women who are not afraid to admit their mistakes and try to change for the better.
There’s a lot of laughter along the way, as the plot thickens and the struggle unfolds. There are also moments of contentment and beauty: an intimate look at Ettie and Zion sharing dinner, smiles and conversation, seen through a window shimmering with raindrops; a view from above as umbrellas pop open one after another when the women go out into the traditional Purim rain; and the original music by Ahuva Ozeri and Shaul Besser makes the heart sing. Excellent performances from the ensemble cast depict a community of colorful characters, with their quips and quirks, yet avoids turning them into caricatures. Orna Banai is hilarious as Tikvah, a woman with a voracious appetite for life, who throws herself whole-heartedly into everything she does. Evelin Hagoel gives an outstanding performance as Ettie, a strong woman who is confident in her identity, beliefs and relationships. One of the film’s most striking moments takes place when she realizes that the almost-miraculous repairs facilitated by Rabbi David, literally leave the women out in the cold. In the midst of her anger, she has the clarity to realize that she and the other women share in the responsibility for this painful outcome, saying, “We should have been more involved.” Words of wisdom.
The Women’s Balcony (Ismach Hatani)
(Israel, 96 min, 2016, Hebrew)
Director: Emil Ben Shimon; Screenplay: Shlomit Nehama; Cinematography: Ziv Berkovich; Cast: Evelin Hagoel, Igal Naor, Orna Banay, Einat Sarouf, Aviv Alush, Itzik Cohen, Yafit Asulin, Sharona Elimelech, Herzl Tobey, Haim Znati.
The Women’s Balcony (Ismach Hatani) is currently showing in Israeli theatres.