Arts and Culture

Israeli filmmaker’s ‘Wedding Plan’ goes beyond screwball comedy

Noa Koler in ‘The Wedding Plan’ (Photo courtesy Roadside Attractions)

The grin-inducing trailer for “The Wedding Plan” nonetheless suggests one unhappy outcome: Did Israeli filmmaker Rama Burshtein sell out?

The Orthodox writer-director’s acclaimed debut, “Fill the Void,” was an uncompromising story of a young Orthodox woman grappling with her parents’ and community’s expectations regarding her prospective husband. In contrast, “The Wedding Plan,” while also being chuppah-bound, appears from the trailer to be a romantic comedy designed to entertain.

In fact, “The Wedding Plan” is a high-stakes emotional journey about an observant woman in her 30s who’s so unhappy that she resolves to wed on the last night of Hanukkah — with no groom in sight — after her fiancé breaks up with her mere weeks before their appointed date.

Michal’s family and friends counsel against such a bold, potentially devastating strategy, but she remains undeterred. The film contains plenty of witty one-liners but Burshtein has assuredly not sold out. She simply trusted her U.S. distributor’s marketing strategy, even if some ticket-buyers are misled.

“If you think you’re going to see a romantic comedy and you get something more, that’s good,” Burshtein says. “You get something stronger and that’s OK.”

“The Wedding Plan” (in Hebrew with subtitles) opens today at Century 21 El Con.

Both of Burshtein’s films raise a curtain on the lives of Orthodox women, in part through honest conversations they have among themselves when men aren’t around. The characters reject the idea that Orthodox women are subservient to men and, unsurprisingly, so does their creator.

“For me, being religious is liberating,” says Burshtein. “It’s not killing or closing or not letting me express my thoughts.”

Burshtein goes even further, asserting that women are the creative force.

  “The art world is women,” she says. “[Orthodox] men don’t make films, they don’t cook, they don’t paint.”

Burshtein originally pitched “The Wedding Plan” as a television series, but after getting the green light and embarking on the script she decided it would be a feature film. Although she doesn’t say it, a movie is seen by more people around the world than an Israeli TV show.

“I’m writing from my world to the outside world,” the filmmaker explains in a phone interview during a press day in Washington, D.C. “Not [just] to secular people but to non-Jews. It opens a window to my world to people who know nothing about my world.”

Burshtein was born in New York and became religious while she was in film school in Jerusalem in the 1980s. She says she didn’t expect the attention her films have received abroad, but at the same time isn’t surprised they touch audiences far beyond Tel Aviv and New York.

“We live in an age when women find their partner pretty late,” Burshtein says. “And sometimes they don’t. It’s very hard to find someone that you really want to share your life with. [My films] connect to that. All over the world, it’s the same thing, the same heart.”

“The Wedding Plan” is unmistakably and unapologetically set in the Orthodox community but the crux of the film is Michal’s urgent personal quest. Although her ostensible goal is to get married, a raw and powerful opening scene makes it clear that what she really craves and seeks is the respect of a committed partner.

Michal’s striving is universal and at times absurd, which spawns the film’s humor. Because she has no time to waste, Michal (played by the fearless Noa Koler) confronts every prospective suitor with direct questions and shockingly honest confessions that derail and discomfit them.

Michal’s pain and desperation are palpable through the laughs, to the point where she makes a pilgrimage to Ukraine to the grave of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov. That’s not an incidental detail, for Burshtein is a proponent of  Nachman’s philosophy.

“We can handle despair, and we can handle hope,” the filmmaker says. “The film is that movement between the two. You should be a fighter in the movement, and not get lost in the movement.”

Michael Fox is a San Francisco-based film critic.