Emil Ben Shimon’s Hebrew-language movie, The Women’s Balcony, takes a viewer into a divided Sephardic Jewish community in Jerusalem. Premiered at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival, it’s about tradition, friendship, faith and rebellion.
The opening scene sets the tone.
On a beautiful Saturday morning, with the rays of the sun glinting off beige stone buildings, a procession of high-spirited men, women and children wends its way through the quaint and narrow streets of western Jerusalem.
They’re heading toward a synagogue, where a bar mitzvah boy will be inducted into manhood. It’s a happy occasion, a rite of passage, and the film captures this upbeat mood with effortless ease.
Inside the crowded Orthodox shul, the ceremonies unfold with timeless precision. The boy chants his prayers, the men pray in unison and the women throw candies. Suddenly, the balcony reserved for women collapses, sending up a cloud of dust and injuring several people, including the rabbi’s wife.
The accident, which is at the center of the film, traumatizes the rabbi, an elderly man who falls into a state of grief and confusion. His next-door colleague, Rabbi David, the head of a yeshiva, kindly offers to help.
Rabbi David (Avraham Aviv Alush), young and charismatic, can’t understand the meaning of the tragedy, but he’s level-headed enough to realize that reconstruction should be the first priority. He arranges for a renovation permit and convinces the synagogue’s president that he should be in charge until the old rabbi recuperates and returns to his duties.
From the moment he takes over, Rabbi David reveals himself as a traditionalist. He urges congregants’ wives to wear head coverings. The men fall into line with his recommendation, but some of the women disagree. Their diverse reactions are portrayed in quick and sardonic scenes.
Rabbi David reaches too far when he unilaterally decides that the balcony will be replaced with a claustrophobic room with bars. The women respond to his high-handed decision with derision and anger. Rabbi David has become a source of strife who’s tearing the congregation apart.
The women launch a fund-raising drive to pay for the cost of a balcony. Rabbi David tries to sabotage their campaign. Etti, the bar mitzvah boy’s feisty grandmother, fights back, letting him know that his interpretation of Jewish law is rigid and unacceptable.
Belatedly, some of the men throw their support behind their wives, who mount a street demonstration to vent their frustration with Rabbi David. He attempts to intimidate the ladies, but fails.
Ben Shimon works a poignant subplot into the mix. Yaffa, a young woman who’s been unlucky in love, finally finds a suitable suitor. Rabbi David tries to break up the budding relationship, but meets resistance.
The Women’s Balcony, a finely-wrought film with a first-rate cast and an exuberant musical score, paints a sympathetic portrait of a tight-knit, insular community whose unity is imperilled by an arrogant interloper.
As Israeli films go, this is one of the better ones.