The film rests between a version of religion that is acceptable and community-building and one that is everything the Dawkins’ and the Harris’ of the world despise with its patronizing misogyny and its elevation of trinkets over good works. The committed members of David’s congregation aren’t shown to approach the level of happiness that the less stringent members have. These rules and restrictions are making people cold and rigid while depriving them of their neighbors’ company, most demonstrated in a touching subplot about a shopkeeper and a young boy with conservative parents. The shopkeeper would love to keep letting the kid have candy and be generally adorable around him, but not at the cost of submitting to what he sees as injustice.
Ben-Shimon and writer Shlomit Nehama allow the viewer to be snowed just as badly as the male congregants thanks to Alush’s effective performance as a man who deeply cares about this specific brand of Judaism and wants to earnestly proselytize to his neighbors, but it’s the women who steal the film with their woundedness and their wakening civic engagement. They’re the ones being deprived of something, and so it must be them that make things right. Their reconciliation efforts blossom out from their immediate families and friend groups to the whole community. With its indelible matriarch characters matched with passionate performances, the film makes this seem exactly correct.
The Women’s Balcony gets in some earned whacks at the easy target of the hyper-religious, and it does so without exaggerating their characteristics or making them look foolish. What it does do is show how that kind of zeal isn’t making anyone’s life better. A little zeal, on occasion, maybe, but who would want to be separated from women as intelligent and interesting as the ones depicted here? A-