Israeli film succeeds on local, universal levels
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 17/11/2017 (1785 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
This warm, winning, crowd-pleasing Israeli film starts with a crash and ends, as good comedies often do, with a celebration. In between, expect a lot of arguing.
When the women’s balcony at a small, poor Orthodox synagogue in Jerusalem collapses during a bar mitzvah, the rabbi’s wife is left in a coma. The elderly rabbi is in shock and the beleaguered congregation is stranded.
Enter the keen, charismatic but rather rigid young Rabbi David (Avraham Aviv Alush, who played Jesus in the Christian drama The Shack). When he decides the women’s balcony doesn’t really need to be fixed, thus relegating half the congregation to a small adjacent room with a tiny window, he has no idea what he’s in for.
“A man should respect his wife more than himself,” one irate women tells the rabbi. “Maimonides said that! Or maybe that other one… “
As the conflict escalates, the tough-minded and pragmatic Ettie (Evelin Hagoel) rallies the women, while her gentle husband, Zion (Igal Naor), looks on with a mix of admiration and consternation. In a long comic tradition dating back to Classical Greece and Lysistrata, the wives eventually stage a strike, walking out on their husbands until the balcony issue is resolved. (“Don’t forget to take your blood pressure pills,” one dutiful wife says as she heads out the door.)
Exuberant and funny as a comedy — the film was a box-office smash in Israel — The Women’s Balcony (in Hebrew, with subtitles) is also surprisingly subtle and searching as a drama. Director Emil Ben-Shimon and writer Shlomit Nehama pull off a modern and mature look at faith, fundamentalism and the often tricky tussles between individual voices and community expectations.
In this delicate project, The Women’s Balcony joins a recent run of films about Jewish religious life, including Menashe, an unlikely art-house indie drama set in an ultra-Orthodox community in Brooklyn, and The Wedding Plan, a touching but unexpectedly wacky look at an Orthodox Israeli woman tired of looking for true love.
The Women’s Balcony creates an immediate and evocative sense of place that brings us right into the narrow streets, small shops and cramped apartments of an old Jerusalem neighbourhood. Some of the film is culturally specific to Israeli Jews, including a Passover seder that goes terribly wrong and the strategic use of chopped salad.
But the story’s emotions feel universal, with beautifully developed and complex characters, all given vivid life by a tight ensemble of veteran actors. In particular, Ettie and Zion’s long and affectionate marriage feels real and lived in, and we get some nice comic relief from their niece, Yaffa (Yaffit Asulin), and her weary approach to the Orthodox dating scene. (One date barrages her with what seems to be a standardized questionnaire. Sample question: “Who’s your favourite biblical hero?”)
The film’s central conflict is perhaps solved too easily.
The posted signs in the neighbourhood enforcing female modesty are pointers to much deeper and divisive debates raging in Israel.
But the film has crafted an essentially benevolent comic universe where everyone is goodhearted — or at least, they are who they are, and there’s not much to do about it. In the end acrimony is forgotten and the bonds of family and friendship are restored, with the men and women coming together for a big, happy wedding.
And probably more chopped salad.
Studying at the University of Winnipeg and later Toronto’s York University, Alison Gillmor planned to become an art historian. She ended up catching the journalism bug when she started as visual arts reviewer at the Winnipeg Free Press in 1992.