It sounds paradoxical, but it’s often true that the more culturally precise a foreign language film is, the more universal its appeal becomes. This is the case with the charming but pointed “The Women’s Balcony.”
A major box-office success in Israel, “The Women’s Balcony” is so seemingly site-specific that even its driving force, screenwriter Shlomit Nehama, was surprised when it began succeeding overseas.
But culture aside, this is an unapologetically warmhearted comedic drama, a fine example of commercial filmmaking grounded in a persuasive knowledge of human behavior.
As the title indicates, “The Women’s Balcony” is set in an Orthodox Jewish community in Jerusalem. But though that world may seem monolithic to outsiders, as Nehama and director Emil Ben-Shimon well understand, there is a genuine rift there, a clash of cultures often unspoken and unacknowledged that the film has adroitly mined.
At first, however, everything is supremely festive, as the members of a small neighborhood Orthodox community, the kind of close-knit group in which everyone inevitably knows everyone else’s business, gather to celebrate the bar mitzvah of the grandson of pillars of the congregation Etti (Evelin Hagoel) and Zion (Igal Naor).
Under the leadership of a venerable but beloved rabbi, things are going splendidly when a mishap strikes: The building’s balcony, the place where women pray in sex-segregated Orthodox services, collapses, leaving the rabbi’s wife hospitalized and the rabbi in retreat from reality.
Very much in disarray, the congregation finds a new temporary space in a location that makes finding a minyan, the 10 men needed for daily prayers, difficult. Enter the young and charismatic Rabbi David (Avraham Aviv Alush), a can-do individual who teaches at a local seminary and takes on the congregation’s well-being as a personal project.
Rabbi David is so eager to help he even offers to cut through the annoying red tape and supervise the rebuilding of the collapsed synagogue.
“Thank the creator,” he modestly tells the grateful congregants. “I am only the messenger.”
Discerning eyes will notice, however, that Rabbi David’s dress marks him as ultra-Orthodox, while the congregation, whose female members do not cover their hair, is what might be called modern Orthodox: definitely observant but without the accompanying zealotry. That may seem like a small difference, but it turns out it is not.
Things get complicated when Rabbi David gives the men in the congregation a stirring speech about purity that does not go down well with the wives. Then the newly rebuilt synagogue is unveiled and all hell breaks loose.
For under Rabbi David’s supervision, the airy balcony of old has been eliminated and the women are squeezed into a claustrophobic auxiliary space. And worse is yet to come.
But if the men think that the women will agree with Rabbi David that this is all an expression of God’s will, they quickly realize their mistake.
Screenwriter Nehama, who grew up in an Orthodox Jerusalem community like the one in the film, has said her goal was “to tell the story of the moderate people who are forced to deal with growing religious extremism,” and “The Women’s Balcony” definitely does that.
But Nehama has also said she was inspired by British movies about the misadventures of small-town life, such as the charming “Waking Ned Devine,” and the way she has made her serious societal points in an audience-friendly format is the key to this film’s success.
Following the peregrinations of numerous characters, including the happily married Etti and Zion; Yaffa (Yafit Asulin), a young woman looking for a husband; and the tough-minded Tikva (top Israeli comedian Orna Banai), “Balcony” includes us in the community’s warmth and caring.
As smoothly directed by Ben-Shimon, a filmmaker best known for his television work, and enlivened by a fine Ahuva Ozeri score, most plot twists can be seen coming. But as performed by a cast of practiced farceurs, that is part of its charm.
When one character says, “Everyone should take care of his own account with God,” it’s a message that resonates.