Tzivi reviews 'The Women's Balcony'

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Set in a close-knit community in Jerusalem, the new Israeli film The Women's Balcony is a parable about what often occurs after bad things happen to good people. But rather than weep and wail, director Emil Ben-Shimon (in collaboration with screenwriter Shlomit Nehama) has created an exquisite dramedy about faith and fellowship.

The story begins on Shabbat. Etti (Evelin Hagoel) and Zion (Igal Naor), surrounded by all of their friends, are on their way to the synagogue to celebrate the bar mitzvah of their grandson. The tableau Ben-Shimon presents to his audience is a joyous one. The number of men and women is in balance, and they form a convivial group that is totally comfortable together.

But make no mistake, this is a religious community. So when they arrive at the synagogue, the group splits in two. The men go in to the sanctuary on the main floor and the women go up to the balcony. This bifurcation is “tradition” in their community. It is the way it has always been and it is the way they like it. The women in the balcony have their own intimate domain, and they are obviously thriving.

But then tragedy strikes. The balcony suddenly collapses and various members of the Congregation are injured. Thankfully, because the synagogue is small and the balcony is fairly low, most of the injuries are minor. The greatest harm is actually to the building itself, which must be immediately closed for repair.

Everyone in the community is bereft, especially the men who now have nowhere to meet for morning prayers. Rabbi David (Aviv Alush), the charismatic leader of one of the neighborhood yeshivot, sees their distress, gathers some of his students, and brings them to the temporary location. Once there is a minion, some semblance of normal life returns, and the men quickly adjust to the new arrangement.

But that is not enough for Rabbi David. There is a hole at the heart of this community. Days later, the rebbetzin is still in the hospital, and her husband -- beloved Rabbi Menashe (Abraham Celektar) -- is unable to cope. Sensing that, at least temporarily, the synagogue has no spiritual leader, Rabbi David decides to step in and take over, a self-appointed savior.

Theodicy. Etymologically, the word “theodicy” derives from two Greek words: Theos (the Greek word for "God") and dikē (best translated as “trial” or “judgment”). But used colloquially, this heavy philosophical concept concerns a question we have all asked ourselves at one time or another: Why do bad things happen to good people?

In the Biblical Book of Job, the Theodicy question is an urgent one. A righteous man who seems to have done everything right is suddenly brought low. Why is God punishing Job? Is he not, in fact, a righteous man? Clearly, that is the immediate assumption of some of his neighbors.

But note that in the Book of Job, the Theodicy question -- like most questions in Western Culture -- is asked and answered only by men. Job dismisses the words of his wife in Chapter Two, and spends most of the remaining 40 chapters debating with the guys before receiving his ultimate answer from Adonai.

However, women finally get their say in the The Women's Balcony. Although the cast is huge, the personalities are specific and the dialogue penned by  Nehama (and vividly brought to life by Ben-Shimon) is sharp, pointed, and cuts to the heart. There are no stereotypes on screen. All of the characters, even the most minor, have the three-dimensional heft of felt life. It is even hard to hiss at Rabbi David (who is, of course the villain of the piece), because he is so sincere in his faith and he so clearly believes that he only wants what is best for everyone. 

It is a joy for me, as a critic, to review a film that works so well on so many levels. Watch it once for the conviviality of this small slice of Jerusalem. Watch it again for a full grasp of the theological dimensions of the story on screen. Simply put, The Women's Balcony is one of the best films of the year in any language.

The Women's Balcony opens today (Friday, June 16) at the Gene Siskel Film Center on State Street and the Landmark Cinema Renaissance Place in Highland Park. 

Another Israeli film called The Wedding Plan is also still playing in Metro Chicago. Regular readers may remember that my review of The Wedding Plan last month was extremely negative. For more on both films, see my blog.

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Top Photo: On the way to the bar mitzvah

Bottom Photo: Locked out of the synagogue

Photo courtesy Menemsha Films

After 35 years in Chicago, Jan Lisa Huttner (Tzivi) now lives in Brooklyn. She recently released a new eBook, " Tevye's Daughters: No Laughing Matter ."... Read More

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