In the opening of “The Women’s Balcony,” at the height of the bar mitzvah celebration for Ettie’s grandson, the balcony set aside for female members of the Orthodox congregation collapses. It knocks the wife of Rabbi Menashe (Abraham Celektar) into a coma, traumatizing him and destroying the sacred scroll and almost the whole temple. Not exactly a subtle metaphor for an old, conservative institution challenged by change and structural weakness, but subtly handled by director Emil Ben-Shimon and screenwriter Shlomit Nehama and rendered heartfelt and compelling by an outstanding cast.
That includes Evelin Hagoel, thorny, determined, and thoughtful as Ettie, a pious but independent woman who, along with her easygoing husband, Zion (Igal Naor), stands out as an upright and active member of the community. Along with her women friends, she is determined to not just repair the battered building but also restore the wrecked balcony.
The menfolk, however, have fallen for the charm of the slick Hassidic Rabbi David (Avraham Aviv Alush), a fundamentalist firebrand with a fervent following, who urges them to make their wives wear headscarves and thinks it’s more important to replace the scroll before the balcony, effectively penning the women into an outhouse and restricting their participation in services.
So powerful is Rabbi David’s rhetoric that even some of the women submit to it, as does Zion, who sees no alternative to the survival of the congregation until the elderly, mentally distracted rabbi, grieving and confused by the absence of his still-comatose wife, can resume his responsibilities.
In a film that is to a large extent about architecture, Ben-Shimon shows ingenuity and poetic insight into commenting through composition, structures, and setting on themes and relationships. He takes full advantage of the old buildings, walls, and cobbled alleyways of Jerusalem and also exploits the symbolic potential of the interiors. Early in the film, Ettie and Zion are often shown framed by a window or doorway, at times canoodling. Later, as Rabbi David’s influence increases, such structural elements separate them. Ettie becomes increasingly ostracized, with Rabbi David even suggesting that the collapse was judgment on her because it occurred during her grandson’s bar mitzvah. “You entered a community of good will,” she finally tells Rabbi David, “and left them filled with fear.”
That community of good will is on display in the pre-collapse, opening scene as it leaves Ettie and Zion’s house en route to the bar mitzvah. That scene is repeated again at the end, with a similarly jubilant crowd on their way to that tradition ritual of the reconciliation of opposites — a wedding.
THE WOMEN’S BALCONY
Directed by Emil Ben-Shimon. Written by Shlomit Nehama. Starring Evelin Hagoel, Avraham Aviv Alush, Igal Naor, Abraham Celektar. At West Newton. 96 minutes. Unrated. In Hebrew, with subtitles.