The Women’s Balcony – A review

The 90-minute color dramedy The Women's Balcony, directed by Emil Ben Shimon, is one of 42 films screened in four days at the Barnard Athena Film Festival, organized by Kathryn Kolbert and Melissa Silverstein, and features exemplary intelligent and empowered women through history.  The festival is an outgrowth of the Athena Center for Leadership Studies at Barnard, the women's college at Columbia University.

Though the topic of r'shus ha'nashim, the women's section, in a cute local Israeli house of worship may not be a theme many (non-members of the tribe) might relate to, in fact, the film is beautifully and perfectly cast, scripted, and acted.  The story involves how a small synagogue in Jerusalem resolves a catastrophic collapse of the women's section during a Bar Mitzvah.  The rabbi's wife is severely injured.  The synagogue is unusable.

How can they recover?

The drama is heightened by the way the modern Orthodox congregants, ordinary Jewish citizens of Jerusalem, interact with the interim Chassidic rabbi, as the elderly contractual rabbi is too distraught to function.  The charismatic young firebrand wants not to replace the women's section with a new, airy, bright replacement, but to purchase a costly new Torah scroll.  The women are thus to be sequestered in a tiny airless room in deference to the costly Torah scroll.

How the women maneuver to get what they want evokes that iconic Greek "resistance" forbear, Aristophanes's Lysistrata, citizen-women taking a stand to accomplish their goal.

Ripe as it is for hectoring and homiletics, the movie avoids the boring dialectics.  There is the old rabbi mourning his injured and hospitalized wife.  There are half a dozen marriages that are loving and nuanced with feeling.  Skipping the neurotic and erotic, there are comedic moments that arise unforced from the story.

The audience up at Barnard, where there was an Athena film fest going on, spontaneously applauded at the end.  I think it the best film, and certainly the most enjoyable, I have seen all year.  A tremendous hit in Israel, not a word about it has been heard, of course, in the U.S., accounting for its sudden, unheralded appearance at the festival.

Another point in its favor is the women in it: all protagonists are attractive females in their 40s, 50s, and 60s.  No need to say the obvious: women over the Lolita stage are a decided rarity in film in Hollywood-dominated country.

The Hebrew is a delight, as well as being translated splendidly into idiomatic English.

A sweet, entertaining, even instructive thing to see if it comes to a neighborhood venue.  Views of Jerusalem you rarely see.  Ordinary Israeli life, ditto.

Israeli film has come a long way since the kibbutz comedies of the mid-20th century.

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