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
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
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
Photo: On the way to the bar mitzvah
Photo: Locked out of the synagogue
courtesy Menemsha Films