THE WOMEN’S BALCONY (Emil Ben-Shimon, 2016)
Film Society of Lincoln Center, Walter Reade Theater
165 West 65th St. at Amsterdam Ave.
Saturday, January 14, 7:00, and Tuesday, January 17, 3:30
New York Jewish Film Festival runs January 11-24
Judaism may be matrilineal, but that doesn’t mean that women are treated as equal to men, especially among sects espousing fundamentalist religious beliefs, although women are considered holier than men in Orthodox communities. In Emil Ben-Shimon’s absolutely wonderful debut feature, The Women’s Balcony, that all comes to a head when wives, mothers, girlfriends, and daughters, relegated to a balcony in the back of a small, local shul — as if on a pedestal, farther away from the Torah but closer to G-d — come crashing down when the structure breaks, suddenly putting them on the same level as the men. It’s no coincidence that this happens during an Orthodox bar mitzvah, when a boy becomes a man, which is much different from an orthodox bat mitzvah, when a girl becomes a woman. When a fundamentalist rabbi from a nearby congregation offers to help rebuild the Mizrahi synagogue, the place of women in the shul are far from his main concern, leading to a furious and delightful battle of the sexes. With the elderly Rabbi Menashe (Abraham Celektar) flustered because the accident has left his wife in a coma, Rabbi David (Avraham Aviv Alush) is only too happy to step in, demanding further separation between the men and the women, which causes problems for such couples as gabbai Aharon (Itzik Cohen) and Tikva (Orna Banai); mild-mannered Nissan (Herzi Tobey) and Margalit (Einat Sarouf); and warmhearted shopkeeper Zion (Igal Naor) and Etti (Evelin Hagoel), who have a terrific marriage and equal partnership until things start changing at the shul. Meanwhile, everyone is hoping that Yaffa (Yafit Asulin) finds the right man as she expands her dating search, until she and Rabbi David’s assistant (Assaf Ben Shimon) take an interest in each other, a potential Romeo and Juliet romance.
The Women’s Balcony was written by first-time screenwriter Shlomit Nehama, Ben-Shimon’s ex-wife, who was inspired by the religious extremism she saw in an Israeli neighborhood where she had once lived. The film evokes such sweet-natured favorites as Local Hero and Waking Ned Devine as well as Aristophanes’s Lysistrata as the women fight for their rights. Ben-Shimon (Mimon, Wild Horses) maintains an infectious pace throughout, as cinematographer Ziv Berkovich puts the audience right in the middle of the action, accompanied by Ahuva Ozeri and Shaul Besser’s playful, Jewish-flavored score. Naor and Hagoel are outstanding as Zion and Etti, the emotional center of the film, a lovely couple with a bright view of life, at least until exclusion and sexism get in the way. Asulin is excellent as Yaffa, the young woman who is part of the next generation of Judaism — and who is not extremely knowledgeable about her religion. But even when situations are at their most tense, Nehama and Ben-Shimon keep it all lighthearted; if only more religious (and marital) disputes could be handled with such grace and wit.
Nominated for five Israeli Academy Awards, including Banai for Best Supporting Actress, Rona Doron for Best Costume Design, Vered Mevorach for Best Makeup, the late Ozeri (who passed away last month at the age of sixty-eight) and Besser for Best Score, and Alush for Best Supporting Actor, The Women’s Balcony is screening January 14 and 17 at the New York Jewish Film Festival, with Ben-Shimon participating in a Q&A after both shows. The twenty-sixth annual New York Jewish Film Festival, a joint production of the Jewish Museum and the Film Society of Lincoln Center, runs January 11-24, with more than three dozen programs, from new fiction and nonfiction films to special tributes to Valeska Gert and the duo of Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder and a master class with Israeli documentarian Tomer Heymann.