The Women's Balcony
Comedy / Drama
The Women's Balcony
Comedy / Drama
A bar mitzvah mishap causes a major rift in a devout Orthodox community in Jerusalem.
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February 21, 2018 at 12:40 PM
Women rebel against arrogant young rabbi's rejection.
The film opens on a bar mitzvah and ends on a wedding. In both the religious element is subordinated to the communal celebration.
In the first ceremony the boy becomes a man. In the second the older student betrays his rabbi master to serve his bride, again choosing community over the letter of religious law. In Jerusalem, of course, the daily life is suffused with the holy. It's tempting to take the collapsed balcony as a sign of God's wrath — if one assumes divine authority unto oneself, as the handsome young rabbi does. The film's primary thrust is to prefer communal harmony and trust over the harshness of a literalist faith.
The boy feels responsible for the synagogue's destruction because he'd prayed to be saved from embarrassment at being ill prepared for the ceremony. That's a comic version of the young rabbi's assumption of extraordinary power and authority, especially when he presumes to teach the old rabbi he plans to supplant.
The film takes a clearly feminist position on orthodox Jewish life. Specifically the film valorizes the women who refuse to be marginalized by the young rabbi. They raise the money and campaign to restore the women's balcony in the rebuilt synagogue.
It's not an easy fight, because the rabbi succeeds in shattering their friendships and cowing their men. Ironically, the women's campaign is not for the Conservative or Reform Jew's integration of women into the congregation but for the Orthodox insistence on their separate place. They are rebels for a conservative cause.
For all the Jewish reference the film can be read as the universal tension between any religion's orthodox fear of women and the modern liberalism. The film should play as pointedly to a Muslim or a Mormon audience as to a Jewish.
But the theme ranges even beyond religion. The central evil here is the young rabbi's sophistry. His domination of the community is due to his ability to hijack an essential truth and twist it to his subversive purposes. His opening sermon to the men is about the superiority of women over men, their embodiment of the scripture that a lifetime of study cannot match in men. But this ostensible respect serves only to diminish them.
This strategy got well beyond religion into politics and indeed any debate over values and truth. The devil can quote scripture. The tyrant can apparently espouse the argument for liberty, the most self-serving elitist populism. Though the film's plot specifically deals with religion, its overall theme is the danger of false pretences and the abuse of logic and authority for dogmatic advantage.
So too the fragmentation of the community — the disruption of friendships and marriages and neighbourhoods — is here specifically on a religious difference but can be read more widely as well, as a political drama or as a matter of philosophic dispute bringing more destruction than light. The power of the letter of any law — religious or otherwise — shrinks before the value of the love Zion and Etti exchange over his anonymous gift of a fruit salad and her return of his gleaming, empty bowl.
Nice film, unusual warmth
Here in Israel we're accustomed to nostalgic comic dramas about tight-knit, down-at-heel neighborhood communities. Often the drama originates in marital conflict, with the blame on the husband; in this case, for a change, it originates in religious conflict, fundamentalist versus liberal. The film takes the liberal side but without demonizing the opposition. Marriages are affected, but the film doesn't demonize the husbands either. Everyone's marriage is fundamentally stable, a remarkable thing in the movies, and we even see a rare portrayal of grandparents who are not only still in love but still physically affectionate. The whole large cast of characters is impelled by good intentions, and they make the movie a pleasant Saroyanesque experience. At one point the action emerges from the stone alleyways of Jerusalem to show us a view of the spiffed-up Old City and we realize there is no attempt to explicitly set the plot in the past, although there are few reminders of the present day and the community seems to live as if it were sort of a Brigadoon still living the 1950s. It's a better place than our own, and well worth a visit.
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the core of religion
Greetings again from the darkness. Religious conflict is not often the source of cinematic comedy, but this Israeli film from director Emil Ben-Shimon and writer Shlomit Nehama provides many laughs to go along with its commentary on religious traditions and the power of women.
It's tempting to say the film kicks off with bar mitzvah and ends with a wedding, but it's more accurate to say the bookend community celebrations provide the foundation of meaning for everything else that occurs. The people in this village of Jerusalem are close-knit and mostly happy. They are also religious, though perhaps had become a bit complacent until a near tragic event rattles the core of the congregation.
A young, charismatic Rabbi brings his views that conflict with how the folks in this village have lived and worshiped. A division occurs between the men and women based on such things as scarves covering heads, and women not being allowed in the main area of the synagogue. The backlash has men unable to confront the new Rabbi based on their trust in holy authority, and women banding together for their cause. Understand that the cause is not equality – they aren't asking to sit with men in the synagogue, only to re-gain their own section. This is a percipient example of the crippling effects of religious beliefs and traditions that lack logical sense.
Is a collapsed balcony a sign from God (as the young Rabbi would have them believe) or an indication of a poorly maintained synagogue (like a long unrepaired broken window)? The Women for Women cause provides humor when they are tag-team negotiating with a contractor, and profundity when they are protesting or conducting an old-fashioned kickstarter – knocking on doors asking for donations.
What makes up religious beliefs? Is it the rituals and traditions, or is it the attitude that builds a close-knit community? The film reminds us to beware of false prophets – a concern that crosses all religions and political standards. The script is stellar and the performances are believable. We care about these people and want their happiness to return
even if it's in the form of a fruit salad.