At the beginning of this film, a bar mitzvah at an orthodox Jewish synagogue in Jerusalem is interrupted when the women’s balcony collapses; the balcony is the place where the women of the congregation sit in order to be present at the service without actually being on the floor of the synagogue with the men. With the synagogue’s rabbi injured in the collapse, a charismatic new rabbi enters to assist with the rebuilding, but when he turns out to be extremely conservative, he starts to sow division with the women’s balcony becoming a lightning rod for the disagreements – the new rabbi doesn’t think women should even be allowed a balcony. This is a thought-provoking movie; it clearly has a lot on its mind even as it keeps a pretty upbeat tone throughout. The movie wants to have a variety of viewpoints. As most of the women bristle at being relegated to an outbuilding, a couple of the women find themselves slipping quite comfortably into a more conservative role in their marriages and some of the men find themselves going along with this new rabbi simply because they believe that they can separate their home life from their faith life, keeping their wife as more of an equal at home, even as they allow her to be further marginalized at the synagogue. But the best thing about the movie is Avraham Alush as the new rabbi. It would be obvious to have this ultra-conservative rabbi be old, cranky and abusive, but this movie is smarter than that. Alush is young & handsome, cutting a dashing figure in his black outfit, exuding charisma and affability with his smoldering eyes and charming grin. Watching this movie, I was really struck at just how real it felt; this, I thought, really is how extremism infiltrates and poisons a community. Perhaps the filmmakers were recalling the Biblical passage about how the Devil disguises himself as an angel of light. All handsome smiles, youthful energy and affable good-will, extremism slips through the door and wins people to its side, not with brute force, but with charm and well-reasoned arguments. The film has problems. There are a few too many subplots and there’s a strange vein of silly humor that runs through the film and really detracts at some key moments. And the ending is a real deus ex machina, but given the respectful exploration of faith in this movie, maybe that was intentional. But it’s thought provoking and occasionally quite incisive and brilliant. The final scene with Alush’s character is the best in the film, a chilling conclusion to the most interesting and thought-provoking character. The Women’s Balcony isn’t a masterpiece, but the central plot in particular feels absolutely of the moment and absolutely urgent. 3 stars.
tl;dr – upbeat movie examines an Orthodox Jewish community; at its best when it explores the frightening way extremism spreads, at its worst in moments of farcical comedy. 3 stars.