The subject of faith has always been tightly intertwined with Israeli cinema, and in recent years some of the most thought-provoking films on the subject have originated there. For a nation torn between secular modernization and maintaining an ancient ethnoreligious heritage, their filmmakers seem obsessed with the place of faith in today’s world, specifically the question of at what point does religious devotion devolve into dangerous extremism. But in most of these films—at least the paltry few who’ve made it across the Atlantic to premiere in the North American festival circuit—they approach this question with an almost dour seriousness. Consider Rama Burshtein’s The Wedding Plan (2016). Despite pretenses towards the romantic-comedy genre, most notably in a disastrous blind date scene where a male suitor refuses to physically look at the female protagonist, there’s hardly a drop of levity as far as the subject of religion is concerned. My frustration with this trend in Israeli cinema is part of what makes Emil Ben-Shimon’s The Women’s Balcony such a breath of fresh air.
Like The Wedding Plan, The Women’s Balcony explicitly focuses on the role of women in modern Orthodox Judaism. Whereas Burshtein’s film followed a single middle-aged woman experiencing a crisis of faith, Ben-Shimon’s focuses on a group of women, specifically the wives and mothers of a small congregation in Jerusalem whose rights are threatened following the arrival of a charismatic ultra-ultra-ultra Orthodox rabbi named David (Aviv Alush). After a terrible accident where their women’s balcony—an area specifically set aside for women in synagogues—collapses during a bar mitzvah, their old rabbi loses his full grip on reality. Rabbi David takes his place, pushing the men of the congregation towards more fundamentalist ideals, specifically those concerning women. Godly Jewish women MUST wear headscarves. Godly Jewish women MUST submit to their husbands. And most infuriatingly, godly Jewish women MUST delay the reconstruction of their women’s balcony until the synagogue can afford to produce an expensive new bible. But the women aren’t fools. This isn’t a matter of scriptural propriety, it’s a thinly veiled attempt to force the women out of the synagogue altogether. And they won’t stand for it.
From this summary, one can be forgiven for thinking that this is a film of dramatic standoffs and confrontations. But one of the most interesting things about it is how subtle and underplayed most of the conflict is. Rabbi David isn’t some blowhard tyrant, he’s charming, handsome, and ingratiating. Notice how his face twists in great pain whenever he makes bold demands; it’s as if he’s pronouncing the judgements of God against his own better judgement and preferences. And this is what makes the rabbi such a good antagonist—he doesn’t demand strict orthodoxy because he’s a cruel man. He honestly believes that his interpretation of God’s word is the right one. He’s only trying to help.
It’s only in the last third of the film when the conflict reaches a fever pitch. The women go on strike, demanding that the synagogue’s treasurer return the money that had been donated for a women’s balcony that had been appropriated by rabbi David’s bible fund. And it’s here that we finally notice one of the oddest things about The Women’s Balcony: for a film largely defined and determined by its female characters, the vast majority of it is told exclusively through the eyes of the men. This is a shame—the few scenes focusing on the women are some of the warmest and most delightful in the film. Take the opening scene during the fateful bar mitzvah before the balcony collapses. The women coerce the original rabbi into prolonging his sermon so they can retrieve candy needed for the ritual that they had forgotten at home. It’s a delightful bit of silliness that speaks to the heart of what makes the film feel so different from other films about faith: the community feels comprised of actual people with varying beliefs, not just brainless devotees. Throughout the film the people of this congregation bicker and argue, fight and squabble. They pull pranks and make jokes and cook meals and break hearts. Yet through it all there is a shared sense of earnest religious devotion. And that’s something crucially lacking in much of today’s religious discourse: the idea that communities of believers CAN disagree. It just helps if they have a good sense of humor.