“The Women’s Balcony” is directed by Emil Ben Shimon, written by Shlomit Nehama and stars Avraham Aviv Alush, Yafit Asulin, Orna Banal and others.

I saw this movie in Hebrew with English subtitles.

Before offering my opinion, I’d like to take a few steps back in this one. This spring, one of my dear friends fulfilled her life-long dream of publishing a book, when she came to Toronto for her book launch event I had the opportunity to have dinner with her, another friend and her publisher. During conversation, the publisher revealed that a few places she tried to sell the book, she was met with push-back, one book-seller saying that a memoir of a bisexual, polyamourous women would not find readers at that bookstore as people were “not interested”.

Putting aside affection for my friend, this confused me. I don’t need or want only stories about me and my experience to be the subject of art. I don’t read autobiographies to find out about people who are like me, I read them to find out about people who aren’t like me. I don’t watch movies to strictly enforce my work view, I watch them to expand and challenge my world view. I like art that entertains but I also like art that confronts and challenges. 

I am not clear if I am unique in this.

So, I went to see this movie, not because I’m Jewish, I went because I have little insight into what being Jewish means and wanted to see a movie that expanded my understanding of the world and others and hopefully entertained me in the process.

I’m going to review this movie and if I explain a little too much about things I didn’t understand, I hope you will understand this is my way of processing that which is new to me and  not as a way of judging or belittling anyone’s experience. 

I hope that my review is respectful of both the film and the culture.

I’m not saying now because this film is Jewish and set in Israel, I’m saying it only because this issue is on my mind.

So.

For a deceptively simple plot, this movie took on some complex ideas. The plot is the women’s balcony in a synagogue collapses which leads to an injury, the decline of the mental health of the rabbi and leaves the congregants effectively leaderless. A simple if act of kindness leads to the split in congrants along gender lines and the question what to live a life of faith means – it is following rules or being practical and loving about the embodiment of those rules.

It was surpassingly funny, with engaging characters and charismatic actors. The characters all had a strong sense of purpose and it was good to see how they often struggled with their words and actions, these are people who are trying and sometimes fail and them try again, 

One of the elements I most enjoyed was that every character – regardless of action or belief – was written and protrayed respectfully, there were no easy choices here and there was a lack of sense of malice, the character we see pushing a fundamentalist view does so gently and so subtlely that it was hard to track how a suggestion of women wearing a head scarf becomes breaking the law later.

Every character was loving written and acted and I loved that every character got a few laugh lines – it wasn’t toll in th aisles funny, but it was clever and witty and charming.

Just before I saw this movie, I read a review that explained that the tension between the men and women are something akin to Lystistrata-like tensions, I disagree, the film was neither bodily nor bosterious but masterfully subtle and sublimated (nice touch on the tasty fruit salad).

The relationships between the married couples was very nice and believeabke too – the characters truly loved and like each other and there was kindness even in the disagreements.

So that’s the bones of it, 

The meat is, of course, more difficult, 

What is religious fundamentalism? What is religious liberalism? In a situation where men seek control over the behaviour and bodies of women, what does it mean when women put pressure on other women to marry? How is faith best embodied – following rules or being practical and loving? Are fundamentalists incapable of small kindnesses? Is God impersonal or personal? Do we need a personal relationship which God to live a life of faith?

I’m not sure that this film answered any of these questions but it asked them.

I was also unclear about the setting – in Canada, I’ve never heard of a gender-segregated synagogue. Although I have heard of women wearing headsp coverings as a form of religious modesty and I wasn’t sure how the liberalism of not wearing a head covering was contrasted to the the gender segregation. The film refused to confront the overall problem of Israel and I think this was an excellent, decision, but I’m not sure that we can just ignore in art that which we don’t know how to confront or find inconvenient (yes, I am looking at you Sophia Coppola).

The simplicity, charm and humour of this film belied its deeper questions and problems. For that, I have to say it was very well done.

Not sure where you will be able to see this one, you may have to check the film’s website.

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