“The Women’s Balcony,” about a rift within an Orthodox Jewish congregation in Jerusalem, is such an agreeable, crowd-pleasing film that its light touch could be mistaken for being lightweight. But beneath its gentle, comic exterior is a serious look at social and religious tensions not always apparent in the West.
The conflict revolves around a neighborhood synagogue, which is populated by quirky, appealing folks who seem to have known each other for most of their lives. Aside from some comic pratfalls, all is well until the second-floor balcony — where the women are segregated during services — collapses during a bar mitzvah.
This architectural calamity prompts the men of the synagogue to enlist the assistance of an ultra-Orthodox rabbi, who fixes the building but places the women in a drab back room — without a new balcony.
This slight leads to fissures in many a marriage, and gives director Emil Ben-Shimon an opportunity to illuminate a culture clash between the more modern Orthodox and more traditional ultra-Orthodox branches of Judaism.
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This could have become preachy — or even precious — really fast, but the excellent ensemble cast is there to remind us that this is a story grounded in genuine human emotions. Ben-Shimon also gets a lot of mileage out of his Jerusalem locations, which give his story even more authenticity.
The film falters a tad with its predictability: We can see almost every plot twist coming around the cobblestone corners. But it’s impossible to resist a film that has such rich characters and makes a complicated subject both enlightening and entertaining.
In Hebrew with English subtitles
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The Women’s Balcony
☆☆☆☆ (out of five)
Director: Emil Ben-Shimon
Cast: Evelin Hagoel, Yigal Naor
Running time: 96 min.