One of the most unlikely recent movie successes was the marital drama “Fill the Void,” written and directed by Rama Burshtein, an American-Israeli woman who follows the tenets of ultra-Orthodox Judaism.
Although one could argue that those tenets discourage women from directing movies, this seems not to have deterred Burshtein, whose second feature, “The Wedding Plan,” is as unlikely as its predecessor, and almost as good.
Michal (Noa Koler) is 32 and engaged, after 11 years of looking for a husband. Her fiancé suddenly decides to cancel the wedding a month before the event, for which the guests have already been invited and the hall rented, saying he does not love her.
Michal thanks him for his honesty – she is nothing if not courteous – and then channels her despair into finding a new suitor in order to marry on schedule.
This may sound like the setup for a Hollywood rom-com, and, at its most conventional, that is indeed what it resembles. But Burshtein isn’t trying to make “My Big Fat Israeli Wedding.” The reason “The Wedding Plan” rises above its flippancies is not only because of the novelty of its Israeli trappings but also because Michal is such an ingratiating whirlwind.
Raised in a nonreligious household, Michal’s embrace of Orthodox Judaism is central to her identity. When we first see her, in a scene made extraordinary, for general audiences, by its plainspoken exoticism, she visits an old lady who specializes in removing the bad aura from spinsters. Michal admits to her that the real reason she wants to be married is that she wants to feel normal.
She wants respect in an Orthodox culture where single women are stigmatized. And because Michal, who is not unattractive, subscribes to so much within that culture, she never challenges its assumptions. If she did, she might run counter not only to her own beliefs but to Burshtein’s.
The movie’s depiction of the experiences of an Orthodox woman who is never moved to rebel against her orthodoxies is both its charm and its limitation. A more complex movie would have explored Michal’s struggles, or lack thereof, within the context of the wider secular Israeli society. But, to be fair, this describes a different movie from the one Burshtein chose to make.
The one requirement Michal insists upon in a prospective suitor is that he be religious. She believes that, as the wedding deadline approaches, God will provide for her.
The most powerful subtext to “The Wedding Plan” is that, for her, Michal’s quest is a test of her religious devotion. This is why the funny scenes in this movie are never really just funny.
And there are many funny scenes. Burshtein includes a series of comic vignettes in which Michal goes on arranged dinner dates with Orthodox men who turn out to be howlingly unsuitable: One refuses to look at her because, for him, to do so would taint their communion; a gruff deaf man brings along an interpreter; another condescends to Michal while praising her “nutty energy.”
He’s right, at least, about the energy. Michal owns a mobile petting zoo stocked with everything from rabbits to snakes, and she covers the children’s party circuit. She’s highly structured in her religious life but in every other respect pretty scattershot. Impulsively she makes a pilgrimage to Ukraine to pray for guidance at the tomb of a revered rabbi, and while there she meets Yos (Oz Zehavi), a hippie-ish but somewhat devout pop singer who is touched by her gumption and vulnerability.
Lest you think this dreamboat is God’s answer, remember that Burshtein is not a facile filmmaker. She may believe in cosmic happy endings, but she knows that what happens on earth is often not so secure. Grade: B+ (In Hebrew, with English subtitles. Rated PG for thematic elements.)