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‘Balcony’ film avows a woman’s place is in the shul

A scene from 'The Women's Balcony' (Menemsha Films)

Set among a congregation of observant Jews in a quiet neighborhood in the Old City, “The Women’s Balcony” begins with a bar mitzvah and ends with a wedding.

But there’s plenty of tsuris (trouble) between the celebrations, triggered by a structural collapse just before the haftorah that shutters the shul and threatens the foundation of the affable community.

Things fall apart and, happily, fall back together stronger than ever in this skillfully constructed, crowd-pleasing saga of reasonableness fending off extremism, and humanism triumphing over ideology.

Emil Ben Shimon’s spirited film, from Shlomit Nehama’s warm, wise screenplay, pays unusual homage to the autonomy and power of women in Jewish religious patriarchies. The Women’s Balcony both honors and pokes fun at traditional roles and relationships, but it is unambiguous in its critique of an adherence to scripture that overrules fundamental values of compassion and understanding.

“The Women’s Balcony” opens Aug. 11 at the Loft.

With their aged spiritual leader sidelined by shock and grief — the rebbetzin was injured when the balcony gave way, and the rabbi remains riveted to her bedside — the small congregation struggles to navigate the way forward.

The status quo is further disrupted by an ultra-Orthodox man who chances to be walking by one morning when the men are struggling to make a minyan. In a calculated twist of fate, this helpful fellow turns out to be a rabbi, and he notes the congregation’s leadership void and shrewdly moves to fill it.

Smartly, “The Women’s Balcony” doesn’t position Rabbi David (Aviv Alush) as a total opportunist and villain (even if he wears a black hat). Sure, his sermons are more conservative than his adopted flock is used to hearing, and his attitude that a women’s place is in the home is contrary to the ethos that defines and binds the congregation. But everyone interprets the Torah a little differently, don’t they?

Rabbi David issues instructions for dressing modestly in public that are an affront to some of the women, while others are fine with the new discipline. This fissure between longtime friends adds a dramatic subplot whose strongest aspect is that it allows us to observe the lives of religious women when the men aren’t around. (An interview with screenwriter Shlomit Nehama:

The prevailing dynamic between husbands and wives is also challenged by Rabbi David’s teachings, of course. Zion (Igal Naor) and Ettie (Evelin Hagoel), middle-aged and deeply in love, are the main couple we get to know in “The Wedding Balcony,” and the accretion of details depicting their steady, solid relationship imbues the film with texture and heart.

The movie’s attention to Ettie and Zion (and their fellow congregants, to a lesser degree) subtly reminds us that the real problem with authoritarian philosophies and dogmatic policies is the way they impact individuals on an everyday level.

Meanwhile, the community is grateful for Rabbi David’s energy and plans for repairing and renovating the synagogue. Every successive pronouncement and act, however, excludes the women from the decision process and pushes them to the margins of their own shul.

Rabbi David is indifferent to the idea that he has planted the seeds of a resistance, and he underestimates the women’s resolve — and their ability to strategize.

“The Women’s Balcony” deepens as it goes, smoothly combining a humanistic worldview with a timely political undercurrent. It delivers witty, intelligent and emotionally satisfying entertainment, along with a retort to Israel’s powerful religious conservatives.

“The Women’s Balcony” is in Hebrew with English subtitles, 96 minutes, unrated.

Michael Fox is a film critic in San Francisco.