“The Women’s Balcony” is not traditional summer entertainment. A foreign film without a massive advertising budget, I wasn’t even aware it existed until a representative emailed me in advance of its debut at one of Detroit’s art theaters. A shame, as Emil Ben-Shimon’s film — the highest-grossing film in Israel — is a welcome antidote to summer’s orgies of destruction.
It’s not surprising that the movie’s flown under the critical radar; foreign-language films about religion, gender roles and community can’t exactly compete with Lightning McQueen and Optimus Prime at the box office. But those looking for something light, funny and thought-provoking will find one of the year’s warmest films, and a model for how to approach films about religion.
The church and the neighborhood
“The Women’s Balcony” is an ensemble drama-comedy centered on a close-knit community united by their synagogue. When the floor to the derelict women’s section collapses during a bar mitzvah, the synagogue is temporarily closed and the rabbi — whose wife was injured in the collapse — descends into a dementia-like state. Worried about the loss of their house of worship and the center of their social lives, the church’s male leadership happily accepts the help of a charismatic young rabbi, who offers to help pay for the repairs and inserts himself into the congregation. But the young teacher’s views are a bit too strict and orthodox for many, particularly his stringent teachings on female roles. When one couple refuses to follow his leadership, it creates a schism in the community that has effects not only on worship, but on friendships, marriages and business affairs.
The film is immersed in the nuances and peculiarities of Jewish life, yet Ben-Shimon’s familiarity with and affection for the community renders it universal. This isn’t a stuffy deep-dive into dogma, even though it contains several sequences where synagogue members wrestle with long-held traditions and scriptural passages. But “The Women’s Balcony” is less concerned with arguing letter of the law and more with how those differences and disagreements can create divisions that ripple across entire faith communities, splintering friendships and causing familial rifts.
I’ve seen countless films that center on church congregations, but I can’t remember the last one that so perfectly captured the way members of these communities bicker, fellowship and do life togerher. Whether it’s the playful banter before a wedding or bar mitzvah, gossip between close friends, or the betrayal one feels when their neighbors don’t show up for a promised dinner, the film teems with the rhythms and rituals of community life. For the synagogue members, faith isn’t just a tradition that is compartmentalized from the rest of life; it’s the uniting bond between neighbors, the religious calendar is also its social calendar. To challenge tradition or question teaching doesn’t just put you at odds with the church; you risk being ostracized from your friends and family, even your spouse. I grew up in close-knit Baptist congregations my entire life and I related to the tensions and relational land mines presented here.
Shlomit Nehama’s script is knowledgeable about doctrine and the nuances of scripture, but it never feels talky or dispassionate. The film never loses its communal focus; the congregation refers to itself as “we,” and multiple scenes take place at classes, congregational gatherings and holiday dinners. This not only invites viewers into this community, but gives its scenes where one or two characters are isolated more emotional heft. The ensemble is warm and charismatic, and the film ably navigates its love stories and family discords in between statements about doctrinal rifts and gender conflicts. It’s one of the warmest and most gently funny movies I’ve seen all year.
Watching it, I mourned that I watch far fewer foreign films that I used to. In my twenties, I loved sitting down to the unique flows of movies not bound by our cultural expectations or slavish devotion to Hollywood’s three-act structure. With “The Women’s Balcony,” I was deeply grateful for this film’s humanity and willingness to let its characters breathe, and I was saddened we don’t see films this joyful and insightful come out more often, especially from our own religious communities.
The blueprint for better faith-based filmsThere’s a universal love for community that flows through each frame of “The Women’s Balcony.” But while it’s accessible to all, it never loses sight of its specific Jewish elements. The film takes no pains to explain what a bar mitzvah is, why there’s a women’s section, and the importance of getting new scrolls. It presents its faith community honesty, entering into the nuances that will be unfamiliar to many Western audiences but also bursting with a humanity that will be recognizable to all. It’s not a movie made to preach or proselytize, but rather a movie that celebrates community and gently critiques its own culture instead of pointing the finger at those outside of it.
America’s faith-based film community could learn a lot from this.
Despite my hesitation about films made for explicitly for Christian audiences, I do believe there is a place for films focused on evangelical characters and communities. Let’s be honest: Christians, especially Evangelicals, are peculiar people, with culture, traditions and lingo that are foreign to many outside the walls of our churches. Too many faith-based films exist to preach and tell those on the outside why they need to make a change and get onboard with Christianity (add an ominous “before it’s too late” if you’d like). They’re ignore that they’re preaching to a choir with a lot of dirt on its robes.
I wish some brave filmmakers would explore the weirdness of American Christianity and confront some of our more controversial tendencies. There are films out there to be made about the tension between faith and commerce, the growing political divide in the American church, and the evergreen way that our debates over non-essential issues continue to divide us. Heck, take a page from “The Women’s Balcony” and take on evangelicalism’s problematic approach to gender roles. There’s ample fodder to be found for smart, engaging scripts. Not everything needs to be world-ending conflict and about souls in peril. Sometimes entering into our own controversies results in a more compelling story.
Now, I know what some of you are thinking: Aren’t there enough films out there that talk about how bad and evil Christians are? Don’t we need to focus on the good?
But I want to see the films I mentioned above told by people who believe that beating under this is something worth preserving, saving and celebrating. Yes, I want filmmakers to tackle gender roles in the church, but I want them to do so because they believe that the equality of men and women found in the Bible is a good thing that’s gotten lost. I want them to talk about the petty divisions and conflicts not as a way to point fingers but as a way to celebrate God-glorifying diversity and the fellowship of the saints that is at risk when we let ourselves splinter. I want stories told by filmmakers who love the body and the gospel and are willing to be honest about its brokenness because they love truth.
I struggle with the church, but I love it. It’s been the setting for my most joyful moments and greatest heartaches. It’s where I’ve seen sinners that make me sick and saints who make me want to be better. There are stories to be told that go beyond our plastic, Photoshopped congregations and Instagram-filtered directories. I want messy, human films because we’re a messy, human body.