New! Visual Parables Journal for October 2017

LOVE MOVIES? Want to spark discussion with friends? Subscribe to Visual Parables Journal. The October 2017 issue is packed with complete study guides, including: Marshall, All Saints, Sabina K, Moka, Menashe, Mother, It, Home Again, I’ll Push You, and many more. Visit our Visual Parables store to subscribe.

 

Marshall (2017)

Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 58 min. Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 8; Language 2; Sex/Nudity 5.

Our star rating (1-5): 5

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners…

Isaiah 61:1

Speak out for those who cannot speak,
for the rights of all the destitute.[b]
Speak out, judge righteously,
defend the rights of the poor and needy.

Proverbs 31:8-9

Sam Friedman, Thurgood Marshall, & defendant Joseph Spell face the jury. (c) Roadside Films

Black history has been a rich gold mine for socially conscious filmmakers, providing great drama that often reminds us that the war for equality is far from over. Such is the excellent new film about Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, played by an actor who now is a veteran of such films, Chadwick Boseman–he played Jackie Robinson in 42 and James Brown in Get on Up. The film given us by director Reginald Hudlin and screenwriters Michael Koskoff and Jacob Koskoff  is not your usual biographical picture moving from childhood through struggle to success. Instead, it deals with the period of one year in Marshall’s early career when the 32-year old lawyer was sent by the NAACP to Bridgeport Connecticut to defend a black chauffeur-butler accused of raping and attempting to kill a white society woman. At that time Marshall was the NAACP’s lone lawyer traveling about the country (mainly in the South) saving wrongfully accused blacks from what amounted to judicial lynching and often dodging assaults on his person (of which we see a couple). His travels must have kept his wife in a stressful state, though we are shown just a couple of home scenes.

The head of the NAACP in Manhattan, who ironically bore the name of Walter White (Roger Guenveur Smith), sends Marshall to the northern city to show that racism was not just a Southern problem. The New York tabloids were exploiting the rape story in nearby Bridgeport so much that many fearful whites were dismissing their black servants. The head of the Bridgeport NAACP John “Ted” Lancaster (Derrick Baskin) arranges for Marshall to meet white lawyer Samuel Friedman (Josh Gad), the plan being to partner with a local lawyer in defending the accused. Friedman is anything but approving of such a partnership. Not only has he never been involved in a criminal case, his specialty being insurance claims, but he is afraid of the bad publicity that would result. The city was known for its hostility toward blacks and other minorities, and Sam himself was Jewish. However, Marshall will not take No for an answer—as Sam tells his upset wife, “He’s very persuasive.” And so, the film becomes an Odd Couple story, with frequent clashes between the two erupting as the trial progresses.

Marshall tells the defendant Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown) that the NAACP, with its limited resources, will defend only the innocent. Assured by Spell that “I never touched the woman,” the lawyers show up with him in court—and run into their first roadblock. Judge Foster (James Cromwell) obviously does not like it that a black lawyer has come unbidden to his city, so he denies Marshall the right to argue the case. He does allow him to sit with and confer with Sam, but not to speak in the courtroom. When Marshall tries to ask a question later, the judge cuts him off by threatening to hold him in contempt of court.

Sam, of course had expected Marshall to do most of the arguing and cross-examination, so he is very distraught. Marshall assures him he can do the job as he hands over to him a half-dozen criminal law textbooks, telling him that he has a month to read them (until the opening of the trial).

The film intersperses all too-brief scenes of Marshall with his wife Buster Marshall (Keesha Sharp) and friends in Harlem. These friends also were high achievers, such as poet Langston Hughes and novelist-Civil Rights activist Zora Neale Hurston (Jussie Smollett and Rozonda ‘Chilli’ Thomas). The scene of them bantering back and forth in a Harlem nightspot makes me wish for more such private life scenes. Also at scattered intervals, we see part of what happened on the terrible night in which Eleanor Strubing (Kate Hudson) claims that Spell burst into her room and raped her two times. We see the pair in her bedroom, then her in the back of her car that he is driving, then being carried over to the ledge of a bridge and falling into the water. Each new appearance adds a bit more information. In and out of the courtroom are people taking sides, the whites outside carrying signs and shouting words of racist hatred. Both Sam and Marshall find themselves in great danger on the same night, the former on his way home and Marshall while in a bar.

Marshall is desperate to find a witness who can back Spell’s alibi. For a while it looks like they might have one, and then there is a plot twist that sends them in a new, unexpected direction and reveals the intense fear that every black person, whether living in the North or the South, feels when confronted with white justice. Marshall maintains his strong commitment to justice, declaring, “The Constitution was not written for us. We know that. But no matter what it takes, we’re going to make it work for us. From now on, we claim it as our own.” But it would take an extraordinary amount of courage, grit, and skill for him to make good on that claim. Some details of the actual trial have been changed, presumably for dramatic reasons. For an interesting account of the Bridgeport  trial see Daniel J. Sharfstein’s “Saving the Race” in Legal Affairs (March/April 2005).

One of the neat little touches I love in this film is the final scene when Marshall, called away while the jury is in deliberation, has arrived at a Mississippi train station to take up a new case. After he talks with Sam on the telephone, he rounds the corner where a “Whites Only” has been placed above the drinking fountain. Marshall takes one of the paper cups and pours himself a drink. On a nearby bench an old black man smiles his approval. Outside the lawyer is met by two African American women, who promise him a good supper. They are accompanied by another black lawyer, who in the credits is identified as Z. Alexander Looby (Benjamin Crump). He is given no lines, but a thrilling film could be made based on his colorful life, Zephaniah Alexander Looby being a real person, once the leading Tennessee black lawyer engaged in so many Civil Rights cases.

Thurgood Marshall was the outstanding advocate for the legal attack on institutionalized racism, just as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X were the leading advocates for street demonstrations against America’s “Original Sin.” (These two groups occasionally were at odds, supporters of the NAACP legal approach fearing that demonstrations resulted in too much violence that undercut their cases in the courts. A good example of this debate is shown in the wonderful 1983 PBS film For Us the Living: The Medgar Evers Story in which the Mississippi head of the NAACP argues this issue with his teen volunteers who want to engage in sit-ins.

I hope this film will be widely screened. Church and other religious groups should rally around and discuss it so that it will stay in the theaters for a while, rather than fade away until its video release. Films like this will make us more aware of our heritage and the need to continually stand up for justice. It can also be viewed as a character transformation film, in that Sam Friedman begins as a reluctant participant in the trial, fearful of damaging his reputation (and thus his practice) into a fierce advocate for racial justice after the trial.

This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the October issue of Visual Parables.

I’ll Push You (2017)

Not Rated. Running time: 1 hour 40 min.

Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 0; Language 1

Our star rating (1-5): 5

 

Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity!

Psalm 131:1 (RSV)

I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.

John 13:34

The friends encounter deep mud at he beginning of their 500-mile trek. (c) Fathom Events

Director  Chris Karcher and Terry Parish’s documentary, set on Spain’s famous El Camino de Santiago, is one of those stand up and cheer films. Celebrating the incredible friendship of Justin Skeesuck and Patrick Gray, it is a testimony to the power of love and perseverance and, in the last portion, of community. Compared to the world-saving struggles of movie superheroes, the pair’s completion in 34 days of a 500-mile journey by wheelchair across mountains, deserts, hills, and valleys might not seem as consequential, but I can assure you that you will feel far more elated at the end of this film than after viewing any Marvel Film epic.

As we see in photos and family film clips, Justin and Patrick have been life-long friends, each having served as Best Man at each other’s weddings. They are not about to let Justin’s rare neurological disease, the results of an injury in an auto accident when he was in his teens, disrupt that when it robs him of the use of his arms and legs. So, when he had Patrick watch with him a tape of a PBS show about The Camino de Santiago, and he expresses the wish to travel it, his friend’s first reaction were the words that comprise the film’s title.

This would prove to be quite a struggle, because Multifocal Acquired Motor Axonopathy (MAMA) had so devastated Justin’s body through the years by causing his autoimmune system to attack his nervous system. Without the use of his limbs he was totally dependent on others for even the simplest of functions such as eating, washing, brushing his teeth, putting on his clothes, or going to the bathroom. And as they soon found out when they set forth in the French Pyrenees, the Camino de Santiago often is so rugged that it requires pulling as well as pushing. For a couple of weeks, they have another friend to help them up and down the rock-strewn road, but because his employer gave him just a couple of weeks off, the friend must return to his job in the States. Fortunately, a host of pilgrims along the way lend their hands from time to time.

At night, it is just the two of them, and we see how well Patrick’s devotion to his friend illustrates the “as I love you” of Jesus’ words to his disciples. Patrick’s is a sacrificial love, requiring him to extricate the wheelchair amidst the mud and muck at the beginning of the trail, as well as negotiate it through narrow doorways of bathrooms. Fortunately, he is young and in possession of a strong back because he has to pick up his friend from the chair and place him onto the toilet. Both are dog-tired at the end of a day of hiking, but the strenuous tasks of using the toilet, brushing teeth, and taking a bath must be completed before either of them can sleep. And then it’s up before sunrise the next day to repeat all the processes. The film is honest enough to show us some of the moments when one or the other are overwhelmed briefly by mishaps—early on the tri-wheeled wheelchair’s front wheel breaks, and they must search for a while before they can find a mechanic who can weld it back on—but they quickly recover and continue on.

In the final leg of the journey a whole group of pilgrims who have heard about the heroic pair meet up with them and lend a hand, this setting Patrick to reflect upon the importance of community. The climactic scene in which Justin’s wife is on hand to cheer on her husband in Santiago probably will bring a tear to your eyes. Justin and Patrick’s story has been featured in such venues as People, The Today Show, The Huffington Post, Fox News, The New York Daily Post, Spiegel, and The Daily Mail, and now in this inspiring film. If you enjoyed Gleason, featuring diseased-wracked NFL player Steve Gleason, the fictional story The Way, or the currently showing Stronger, you will also love this film.

 This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the October issue of Visual Parables.

NOTE: The film opens nation-wide in over 550 theater on Thursday night, November 2nd, at 7:30 p.m. (all times local). You can find your nearest theater and purchase tickets here: https://www.fathomevents.com/events/ill-push-you/theaters

All Saints (2017)

Rated PG. Running time: 1 hour 48 min.

Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 1; Language 0; Sex/Nudity 1.

Our star rating (1-5): 5

 

 But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”

He also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth

Mark 4:29-31

 We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.

Romans 8:28

Surveying the field in front of the church. (c) Affirm Films

At last! Here is a faith-based film that seeks to entertain and inspire rather than convert its audience.

And it stars two actors from one of my favorite TV series, Northern Exposure. John Corbett portrays the Reverend Michael Spurlock, a newly minted Episcopal priest assigned by his bishop to All Saints Episcopal Church in Smyrna, Tennessee, close to Nashville. Barry Corbin plays the elderly parishioner Forrest, who takes an instant disliking to Michael because everyone knows that Michael has been appointed to close the dwindling congregation. His job is not to pastor the people but to inventory all the congregation’s possessions—Forrest disparagingly calls the new pastor the bishop’s “errand boy.” Indeed, when the pastor’s adolescent son Atticus (Myles Moore) declares that he will be bored in such a small place, Michael assures him that they will not be there very long—probably just for the two months needed to close the deal with a prospective buyer.

The other church members are not happy about the closure, but they have bowed to the inevitable, and thus are more accepting of Michael. Then the unexpected happens. A group of Karen refugees from Myanmar come to town. Ye Win (Nelson Lee) is their leader, largely because he is able to speak English. They were Episcopalian in their strife-torn home country, so, to Michael’s and everyone’s surprise, they show up in church. Almost against his will, both the priest and his supportive wife Aimee (Cara Buono) become involved with the Karen, her part being to teach the music to the group.

One night as he stands alone outside the church, Michael has an epiphany. The Karen are in dire need, but the church is broke and about to be sold. However, the church does own considerable acreage, enough to plant a variety of crops—and the Karen are farmers, though many at the present are plucking feathers at a chicken factory. He proposes that the members and the Karen plant crops, part of which can feed the refugees, and part of which can be sold for cash to pay off the church’s mortgage.

Without consulting Bishop Thompson (Gregory Alan Williams), Michael gives the boot to the two developers planning to buy and replace the venerable church with a big box store. Accepting the priest’s plan, the Karen and church members pitch in to plow the field and plant the crops. Help comes in a variety of forms, sometimes from those not a part of the church. After receiving an offer from a stranger, Michael amusingly asks Aimee if he really heard that. The Karen especially put in long hours, those who work at the chicken factory rising early before going off to work, and upon their return, working past sunset.

However, there are obstacles that threaten to scuttle the plan. First, there is Bishop Eldon Thompson, upset that Michael has scuttled the sale of the property without forewarning him. He reminds Michael that he had promised to obey him, and he poses the disturbing reminder, “Be sure it’s God’s voice and not your own.” Always good advice after wrestling with a spiritual experience!

The Bishop’s cabinet also needs convincing. Obtaining their permission is difficult, but when compared to the problems raised by Nature as spring turns to summer, that task seems easy. There is the hurdle of not enough water, requiring some form of spraying it onto the plants. Then, when That problem is solved and matters seem to be going well, a huge rainstorm threatens to drown the crops, requiring the people to fill sandbags to protect the plants. Much of the produce is lost, but the drenched harvesters manage to save a truckload of produce for which an urban buyer is willing to pay them enough to save the church. But then, still another disaster…

I am not spoiling matters to reveal that there is an Easter following this crucifixion event, so that the results really do take on the miraculous. All this is made plausible in the excellent script by Steve Armour and directed by Steve Gomer. And what a joy to see at the end credits shots of the real pastor and the Karen people, many of whom played themselves in the film, which was shot in Smyrna at All Saints.

With no ad campaign to promote it, the film came and went in the Dayton area within two weeks, so you might have to watch it on line. It is well the effort you spend in tracking it down, especially if you want a deeply spiritual and inspirational film that does not insult your intelligence!

This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the October issue of Visual Parables.

Martin Luther: The Idea that Changed the World (2017)

(Original title: A Return to Grace: Luther’s Life and Legacy )

Not Rated. Running time: c. 1 hour 53 min.

Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 3; Language 1; Sex/Nudity 1.

Our star rating (1-5): 5

For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith;

as it is written, ‘The one who is righteous will live by faith.’

Romans 1:17

Luther refuses to back down before Cardinal Cajetan. (c) Boettcher/Trinklein Productions

If you have any interest in the 500th anniversary of the launching of the Protestant Reformation, you will be tuning your TV set to PBS on September 12 to watch director David Batty and writer Mike Trinklein’s docudrama centering on the explosive monk who rocked Western Europe in 1517. This blending of well-staged drama with commentary from numerous scholars and writers, all tied together by narrator Hugh Bonneville (best known for Downton Abbey), works very well.

The excellent cast, headed by veteran actor Padraic Delany as Luther, conveys well the human side of the events, and a veritable classroom full of scholars, writers, and clergy—more than two dozen!—provide more historical and theological details that enhance the viewing experience. Most of the interviewees, each of whom appears several times, are Lutheran, but one of them is Timothy Dolan, the Catholic Archbishop of New York. I love it that Dolan points out: Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress” is in the Catholic Hymnal!

The film covers ground that will be familiar to Protestants who are old enough to remember, years ago, when the Reformation was sometimes was wryly referred to from Protestant pulpits as “Whack the Catholics Sunday.” The topics include Luther’s education in law; his sudden decision during a thunderstorm to enter a monastery; his struggle with his faith in a stern God; his journey to Rome where he saw the church at its most corrupt; his assignment by his mentor Staupitz to teach; his eventual break-through in his Scripture study to the idea of faith alone, and not works, as the path to salvation; his anger at  Tetzel’s selling of indulgences; his refusal to recant his beliefs during the dramatic confrontations with the Emperor and prelates; his marriage and family life; and so on and on through a dangerous life of strong opposition to corruption and false doctrines.

Luther at Worms before the Emperor. (c) Boettcher/Trinklein Productions

Luther’s story is so full and complicated that viewers will learn some new facts about the Reformer’s story. I have never heard, for instance, of the noble woman Argula von Grumbach*, neither in seminary, nor in any of the books about the Reformation that I have read, yet we see her in the film visiting Luther in 1530 and conversing with him on an equal footing. We are told that she was one who advised him to marry. Many of her letters and pamphlets defending the Reformation were widely read, so that her enemies defamed her and ordered her husband to use violence to silence her. What a film could be made about the life of the first woman who dared to write on behalf of the Reformation!

Intriguing too, is the segment about Luther himself tending to the sick during the outbreak of a plague. It was during this period that he wrote his great hymn “A Mighty Fortress” to encourage his people. Although it became known as the anthem of the Reformation, its original purpose was pastoral, not polemical.

The film and the interviewees do not flinch from discussing Luther’s calamitous mistakes. Clearly the filmmakers do not intend to whitewash his character. Though he was from a lower class himself, he sided with the nobles when the oppressed peasants rose in revolt. Of course, it was Duke Frederick the Elector who kept him from the murderous hands of his enemies, so it was understandable that Luther would stand by his protectors.

Of more far reaching consequence is Luther’s denunciation of the Jews in his infamous booklet when they refused to accept his version of the gospel. He wrote that their synagogues should be burned and the people expelled from the country. Thus, Hitler was able to use Luther’s writings in his evil propaganda against the Jews in the 1930s. Modern day Lutheran bodies have all denounced this work of Luther’s, including formal apologies and reconciliation efforts with Jewish groups.

There is also a dark side to Luther’s legacy. (c) Boettcher/Trinklein Productions

Curiously, the above fascinating 5-minute segment segues into a section asserting the Reformer’s influence on America’s Civil Rights Movement. In 1934 a black Baptist minister was in Germany attending a world Baptist Convention, during which he was so inspired by the various sites related to Martin Luther that he decided to change both his and his five-year-old son’s name from Michael to Martin Luther King. The rest, as they say, is history.

Perhaps most endearing to some viewers will be the domestic scenes that begin with Luther’s marrying the former nun Katharina von Bora, who proved to be a good organizer of the household and staunch supporter of her husband. The couple had six children, and from the way they flock to him when he returns home, their relationship must have been warm. He is grief stricken when his daughter Magdalene sickens and dies at the age of 13, but this experience adds depth to his letters that he writes to others mourning the loss of a loved one. No doubt his own children added to his zeal to spread education among all children, a program in which he included girls. The film alludes to comic book illustrations when we are shown that his famous Catechism included pictures to enhance the young readers’ understanding of Christian teaching.

There is so much to explore in this exciting docudrama, so gather a group together on the night of September 12, tune in to PBS, and prepare for a grand time. This is such an excellent production that if you must be away, be sure to set up a recording of the series. You will not want to miss this production! There are many other good films about Luther available, but for overall educational effectiveness, this tops my list.

 

*See the Wikipedia article on her, and for a longer piece that includes one of her poems, click onto the first of the “External Links” at the bottom of the Wikipedia article. It seems so shameful that she, like other female church leaders, has been overlooked by historians.

This review with a set of questions will be in the October 2017 issue of VP.

 

Short Term 12 (2013)

As I was reviewing director Destin Daniel Cretton’s newest film The Glass Castle, I discovered that his 2013 film that I love even more, had never been posted, so here it is. I cannot reccommend this too highly!

Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 36 min.

Our Advisories (0-10): Violence -2; Language -4; Sex-Nudity -6.

Our star rating (1-5): 5

He heals the broken-hearted,
and binds up their wounds.

            Psalm 147.3

He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins,

we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed.

            1 Peter 2.24

Mason & Grace, counselors at a youth treatment facility, are in love.         (c) Demarest Films

Writer-director Destin Daniel Cretton has taken his 22-minute short, shown at Sundance in 2008, and expanded it into one of the best feature films of the year. He reportedly spent two years after college working in a mental treatment facility, and the many details of the movie show this. This film, centered on disturbed teenagers and their young caregivers, is light years away from the caricatures that populate One Flew Over the Cuckoo Nest. Its small production budget is probably less than the advertising budget for the average summer blockbuster, so you might not have heard of this film: before going into details, I want to urge you right away to seek it out. It is certain to be on Visual Parables’ Top Ten list for the year.

The title comes from the name of the mental facility where the disturbed teenagers are expected to stay for just 12 months, the hope being that most will be taken in by foster parents or returned to their own families. It begins with line staff supervisor Grace (Brie Larson) and fellow staffer Mason (John Gallagher Jr.) talking with new volunteer Nate (Rami Malek) about what to expect. Mason is in the midst of telling a funny self-deprecating story when Sammy (Alex Calloway), a skinny kid always dressed in pajama bottoms and playing with dolls, runs out of the building. All three set out in chase, knowing that if Sammy reaches the street, they cannot restrain him. They succeed in catching up with him, and when the would-be runaway is returned to his room, Mason finishes his story. That he is able to share a tale that puts himself in a very unflattering light tells us a lot about this compassionate caregiver.

Grace is well named, she, as well as Mason, seeing her job as a calling—people of faith would call it a “ministry.” She is in her mid to late twenties with no degree in counseling, but her natural gifts, coupled with her own history of abuse, make her a far better counselor than her boss Jack (Frantz Turner), as we see in a later sequence.  She and Mason work well together, and they also live together in an apartment they keep secret—though later they learn that the patients all are aware of their relationship.

When 15 year-old Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever) arrives, she resists the staff and residents’ attempts to be friendly, telling them that she doesn’t want to talk with anyone because her father will soon have her out, and so she does not want to waste her time on short relationships. Grace sees much of herself in the new arrival, including her compulsive cutting of herself. Grace herself is an example of what writer Henri Nouwen called a “wounded healer.” She is pregnant with an unwanted child, and she receives a phone call informing her that the father who was sent to prison on the basis of her testimony about his abusing her will soon be out on parole. When she informs Mason of her condition, he wants her to open up and talk, but she says she cannot. This becomes a growing issue that threatens their relationship.

When Jayden manages to get away from the residence, Grace cannot restrain her to bring her back, so she insists on following her. Despite Jayden’s protests, Grace continues to stay with her. Through this act and a shared interest in drawing, the two grow closer together. Especially telling is the scene in which the girl shows Grace her story of the octopus and the shark, an indirect way of revealing the deep trouble she is in with her father. When Grace learns that Jayden has been released to spend time with her father, she pours out her fears for the girl to Jack, but he thinks she is reading too much into the situation and refuses to go and get the girl. Grace becomes so enraged that she smashes Jack’s favorite table lamp and decides upon a course that could be dangerous.

Woven into Grace and Jayden’s stories are episodes involving several of the other patients, such as the already mentioned Sammy, who continually tries to run away and then is devastated when his doll is stolen; and there’s Luis (Kevin Hernandez), who loves pulling off pranks; and African American Marcus (Keith Stanfield). The latter, at 18, is being prepared to leave, but is very much afraid that he cannot make it outside. He writes angry rap lyrics and often resists attempts to help him—and yet he becomes a fine conveyor of grace when Jayden, on her birthday waits fruitlessly for several hours for her father to come and pick her up. No telling what the despairing girl might have done if it weren’t for Marcus. The scene is a real throat lumping one. There is another memorable episode when the foster parents who had taken Mason in treat everyone to a party, and Mason pays tribute to them—but for their loving acceptance, he says, he would not be here today.

There are so many heart-felt scenes in the film, ones that could have been mawkish or syrupy in the hands of a less gifted director/writer, as well as an incredibly good cast. Some of the characters are a hair’s breadth from spinning out of control. Grace herself breaks Mason’s heart when she remains silent to his plea to open up and share with him her pain and fears. She is like the apostle Paul in his Letter to the Romans in that she knows what she should do, but cannot do it.

Not since the moving sequences between therapist and teen-aged patient in Ordinary People have I seen such an honest and frank approach to the mentally and emotionally disturbed—nor since the Spitfire Grill such a well-rounded portrait of a wounded healer. Grace is a natural counselor able to discern and compassionately reach out to those who are wounded. Were she religious, she might well become a compassionate minister. But in the third act of the film, it is she who must be healed, and how the process begins fills the viewer with renewed hope and a gladness that despite “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” life is good and full of promise for her, and possibly for some of the youth as well. This is a good visual parable revealing the social aspect of healing and that grace can emanate from unexpected sources.

This review with a set of 9 questions is in the Nov. 2013 issue of VP.

The Women’s Balcony (2016)

Not Rated. Running time: 1 hour 36 min.

Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 1; Language 0; Sex/Nudity 1.

Our star rating (1-5): 5

 

Mortal, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel: prophesy, and say to them—to the shepherds:

Thus says the Lord God: Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep?

Ezekiel 34:2

“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.”

Matthew 7:15

On the way to a bar mitzvah at a Jerusalem synagogue.                                  (c) Menemsha Films

We see Etti (Evelin Hagoel) and Zion (Igal Naor), joined by various other women and their families carrying food through the streets of Jerusalem. They are on their way to their small Orthodox synagogue where their grandson’s bar mitzvah is scheduled. However, before the lad can read from the elaborate Torah scroll, there is a loud noise, and the women’s balcony caves in, with the elderly Rabbi Menasha’s wife injured so badly that she lies in a coma at the hospital.

With the synagogue dangerously unstable and their enfeebled Rabbi (Abraham Celektar) in a state of shock, Etti and the men find a substitute room so far away that they cannot secure ten men required for a minyan to hold the service—that is, until young Rabbi David (Aviv Alush) comes along. He agrees to the men’s plea to come and join them, but first hastens away and quickly returns with more than enough students from the seminary that he teaches. As the days pass and Rabbi David volunteers to lead them on a temporary basis, all seems well. Zion and a friend frequently visit their elderly rabbi, but the old man still sits immobile, cut off from the world. Thus they are grateful for the ministrations of their temporary rabbi.

Rabbi David is slick in his approach to the men, as well as a pleasing preacher (for the men). They raise no objection when he tells them that a woman is filled with inner beauty that needs to be covered, and that they should buy scarves for their wives’ heads. The women have not been accustomed to covering their heads, and Etti rejects Zion’s “present” that he brings home. Another meek husband begs his grouchy wife to wear the head-scarf, claiming, “It’ll help my income!” She fires back at him, “Try working. Maybe that’ll help your income.” None of these strong women agree to be their husband’s doormat!

Rabbi David promises to arrange for the restoration of their old synagogue, but the result is not at all to the liking of the women. There is no spacious balcony as before, just a small shed-like addition being provided for the women. So cramped that it seems like an afterthought, the shed’s window gives less than a satisfactory view of the service.

The women’s vow to raise money for a balcony is opposed by Rabbi David. He has even suggested that God allowed the old balcony to fall because of the sins of the congregation, the implication being that they were not strict enough in their following the Torah. There might be a slight basis to the charge, with Etta breaking the Sabbath stricture when a boy turns off her electric coffee pot, and she secretly flips the switch back on. And her grandson confesses to her that he had not learned to read the Scripture assigned to him for his bar mitzvah, and thus had prayed for something to happen that would stop the service, saving him from embarrassment. Clearly, in his eyes the balcony cave-in was his fault.

After some shrewd bargaining with a contractor, the women do raise money for their balcony and give it to the treasurer, but then Rabbi David insists that it should be used to purchase a replacement for the Torah scroll destroyed in the cave-in. The men have been so reluctant to challenge the authority of Rabbi David, that Etti and some of her friends leave their homes, rebelling against their men much as Lysistrata did in Aristophanes’ famous play. They stage a public demonstration outside Rabbi David’s seminary, an act that draws support from other women as well. The men may be cowed by Rabbi David, but Etti had early on been suspicious of him. Seeing her congregation split by the man’s ultraconservative teaching, she asks him, “Is that what a rabbi is supposed to do? Enter a community of good people and fill them with fear?”

A subplot of the film, a growing romance between Yaffa (Yafìt Asulin), Etti and Zion’s niece, and Naphtali (Assaf Ben Shimon), Rabbi David’s assistant, eventually leads to a resolution of the conflict, and the film concludes as it began, with a festive procession, this time one for a wedding.

This is a wonderful celebration of the importance of women, even in a religious tradition that most people think downplays their importance. We see love very much on display—love of husband and wife; of the people for their rabbi; love of a people for one another. It is love that is threatened by a leader’s overly serious, indeed fanatical, emphasis upon rules.

On a lighter note, I also enjoyed how the filmmakers show that food is important to celebration. We first see the women carrying food to the bar mitzvah ceremony. There is a Passover meal and a Seder supper (one of the film’s many eye-catching shots is an overhead shot of the latter!), and there is a supper to raise money for the balcony, but to which no one comes—thus the non-eating of the food emphasizes the schism in the congregation. And there is the wedding feast at the end of the film. Also, it is a bowl of fruit salad that helps restore relations between Etti and Zion once again.

Director Emil Ben-Shimon and screenwriter Shlomit Nehama’s delightful tale is not a summer comedy of little substance, but bids us look at a serious struggle from a different angle. The battle for the soul of this synagogue is akin to that reportedly being fought in Israel itself. Tension between the Jewish Orthodox leaders and both the secular and liberal Jewish believers continues to rise in regard to numerous religious laws that affect everyone. And it is a struggle that Christians too are going through in our own country and around the world. We certainly see this in the Catholic Church as the old conservative wing of cardinals and bishops resist the efforts of Pope Francis to allow compassion to matter as much as rules in their church. This is one comedy that people of all faiths should be seeing and discussing!

This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the October issue of Visual Parables.