I am not a religious Jew. Nor do I believe in Hollywood happy endings. Yet I can’t deny my fascination with The Wedding Plan, the second feature by the ultra-Orthodox Israeli director Rama Burshtein.
Colloquial and even breezy, while as crammed with signs, portents, and potential readings as a Borough Park book and tchotchke store, The Wedding Plan tells the tale of a devout woman, still unmarried at 32 (!), who challenges God to find her a husband. It’s a Haredi rom-com, a heymish equivalent to an austere drama of faith like Carl-Theodor Dreyer’s Ordet that, as made in strict accordance to Halachic law, might have been produced mutatis mutandis in Saudi Arabia.
Burstein’s first film, Fill the Void (2012), concerned the dilemma of an 18-year-old Orthodox girl who, although happily engaged, is pressured to instead marry the husband of her older sister after the sister dies in childbirth. The movie, shown at the New York Film Festival in advance of a commercial release, was respectfully received—in some cases for its exoticism, in others for its universality. In The New York Times, A.O. Scott called the movie “almost unbearably full of feeling and significance.” British critics compared Burshtein to Jane Austen. Despite the heroine’s ultimate compliance with social custom, there were some who saw a feminist subtext.
Scott’s characterization of Fill the Void could apply to The Wedding Plan as well. But although The Wedding Plan is no less involved with issues of love and religious fealty, Burshtein’s new film is unlikely to be taken as seriously. For one thing, the movie’s heroine, Michal (Noa Koler), does not resist marriage, but actively, even compulsively, seeks it. For another, The Wedding Plan is a comedy.
Michal is jilted by her fiancé in a breakup scene as full of neurotic dialogue and comic pain as any that might have been devised by Judd Apatow. Moreover, as obsessive as she is, Michal takes a leap of faith and plunges into Kierkegaardian absurdity. Having booked a hall, ordered the food, and secured a rabbi, she refuses to cancel the wedding—which has been significantly scheduled for the eighth night of Hanukkah, the commemoration of a historical miracle, underscoring her belief that, over the course of a month, she will be able to find a groom.
As needy as she is, Michal is an appealing character—expressive, energetic, and funny, stylishly dowdy and crowned with an unruly tangle of reddish hair. Kolar, who is primarily a stage actress, gives Michal a dogged specificity (for which she won the Israeli equivalent of an Oscar). The proprietress of a children’s petting zoo, Michal is both down to earth and the inhabitant of a sphere filled with prophetic dreams, disguised angels, and enigmatic sages—which is another way of saying that she lives in the world of the movies. Her faith is contagious.
Thus, The Wedding Plan is both a wacky story about a kooky girl and, like Ordet or the Mexican filmmaker Carlos Reygadas’ kindred Silent Light—both of which end with a resurrection from the dead—an illustration of Pascal’s wager. Even before Michal’s ill-fated engagement implodes, a matchmaker cum shaman has declared her to be “full of the evil eye” and questions all the reasons Michal gives her for wanting to be married: that she doesn’t want to be alone, that she wishes to be normal, that she wants stability in her life, that she craves love, that she wants to please God. I leave it to a commentator more versed than I to parse Michal’s answers. But once Michal breaks with her fiancé, her arranged dates are obviously a series of tests, during which—with the clock running and her prospects evermore problematic—she grows increasingly desperate, as well as stubborn.
After her rabbi chastises her for the sin of counting on miracles, Michal flies to Rabbi Nachman’s tomb in Ukraine. Perhaps, like more than few other pilgrims, she has come to pray for a miracle. She first suffers a spiritual crisis but then, in a way, something miraculous actually does happen. Less than two weeks before her scheduled wedding, she meets a charismatic pop star (actual pop star Oz Zehavi) who seems enchanted by her apparently hopeless quest and perhaps even smitten with her. (That, however, is hardly the end of the story.)
At the same time that The Wedding Plan (originally titled Through the Wall, a reference to Michal’s breakdown cum breakthrough at Nachman’s tomb) follows certain Hollywood conventions, it belongs to a small cycle of current films that, in their archetypal characters and homespun sense of the miraculous, have the feel of Jewish fables. Argentine director Daniel Burman’s The Tenth Man is one recent example. Israeli filmmaker Joseph Cedar’s Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer is another. Both are movies in a minor key, and their sympathy for marginal Jews, if not holy fools, and sense of matter-of-fact magic realism have prompted comparison with the stories of Bernard Malamud.
The Tenth Man is a slight but amiable film about a baalat teshuva—an alienated secular Jew—who is something of a schlemiel, brought back by his father, a mysterious fixer, from New York to the warmth of Buenos Aires’ traditional Jewish community and neighborhood, El Once. Norman, a more robust piece of work, stars Richard Gere in a remarkable performance as a stooped, silver-haired busybody who is a hapless dreamer and a good-hearted hondler in the tradition of Sholom Aleichem’s luftmensh Menachem Mendl. At once an annoying nudnik and a secret saint, the operator of his own mitzvah bank, he unwittingly facilitates a political miracle.
Like the vast majority of Malamud’s stories, The Tenth Man and Norman concern men. Michal is as stubborn and lonely as any Malamud antihero but far more steeped in religious tradition and also a more existential seeker. The Wedding Plan is in every way a woman’s film, with a protagonist who plays for higher stakes.
Here, I feel obliged to ask the reader who plans to see The Wedding Plan to go ahead and do so. (Note: The movie received funding from the Avi Chai Foundation, which—like the Keren Keshet Foundation, which created Nextbook Inc., Tablet Magazine’s publisher—was funded by the estate of Zalman C. Bernstein.) Enjoy and please rejoin me later. To know too much in advance might mitigate the considerable suspense with which Burshtein imbues Michal’s quest. In any case, I’ll do my best to talk around the movie’s cosmic denouement.
Burshtein, 50, is an American-born baalat teshuva, and if Fill the Void was made to illuminate and explain, The Wedding Plan, whose protagonist is also a baalat teshuva, seems designed to inspire even more than to entertain. Was is not Rabbi Nachman’s great grandfather, the Baal Shem Tov, who maintained that to recount a legend about a Hasidic rebbe was itself a mitzvah and even a religious act? Thus, Burshtein’s method is as significant as her story. “There is no book that tells you how to make cinema with Halacha,” she said in an interview with The Times of Israel, suggesting that she herself is writing her own rules. “Everything that is happening in my movies has to be according to the Halacha, which means men and women would not touch in my film.” Or, just as crucially, behind the camera.
“I never sit alone with a man,” Burshtein explained. “I work with male cinematographers, but I have a personal assistant that sits with me all the time, not because I am a righteous person, but because I am very, very naughty and I need to protect myself because I can kind of lose it and I become friendly with everybody.” While it may be worth noting that the most important male characters in Burshstein’s two films are played by attractive, secular stars, she has, in a sense, taken an oath of aesthetic purity.
Jewish popular culture is largely concerned with the perpetuation of the tribe according to custom and tradition. A climactic wedding scene was an axiom of the popular Yiddish stage and screen and often crucial to more literary works. The interrupted wedding ceremony at the heart of S. Anski’s verse play The Dybbuk bespeaks a universe in which the dead mingle with the living. The nuptials that end The Wedding Plan may seem more superficially banal than those in The Dybbuk but they are no less supernatural. “The eighth candle of Hanukkah is like the world beyond,” Burshtein has said, invoking the Kabbalah. I may be unfamiliar with the social codes of Burshtein’s milieu, but I do know how to read film language, however Halachic.
The Wedding Plan is not founded on magic realism so much as cosmic ambiguity. The movie’s final scene is fascinating for its sleight of hand involving invisible presences and visible hallucinations, the absolute separation of men and women, a prolonged Talmudic discussion, a weird backbeat of sentimental music that gives way to ecstatic chanting (“a God-fearing woman is to be praised”), and at least one blatantly suggestive lapse in continuity.
The end of The Wedding Plan is either extraordinarily clumsy or a brilliantly literal-minded vision of transcendence. I prefer to believe it’s the latter. As the greatest of modern Jewish fabulists wrote, “The messiah will come only when he is no longer necessary.” Or, as Michal answers her secular mother’s bewildered question as to what is going on as she sits waiting for the unknown groom to appear, “It’s end of the world as we know it, Mom.”
Read more of J. Hoberman’s film criticism for Tablet magazine here.