Rama Burshtein’s The Wedding Plan was cleverly but inaccurately marketed as a kind of throwback romantic comedy in the vein of any number of Julia Roberts films from the 90s – the tagline on its poster reads: “30 days. 1 Wedding. No groom.” In reality, The Wedding Plan is a meditation on the power of faith and the despair of loneliness.
Burshtein is an Ultra-Orthodox Jewish Israeli woman, and is therefore something of a unicorn in the filmmaking world. There has never been an Ultra-Orthodox filmmaker before and likely never will be again – the tenets of these stricter versions of Judaism do not allow for indulgences of the cinematic variety. Burshtein therefore has a unique perspective as a director, a perspective that is genuinely valuable and deserves to be sought out. It helps that Burshtein established herself as a talented, assured and deliberate filmmaker right out of the gate with her 2012 debut, Fill the Void, which is a somber and somewhat critical take on the subject of arranged marriage in Israel’s religious community.
The Wedding Plan further demonstrates Burshtein’s filmmaking excellence. A serious but laugh-out-loud hilarious film, The Wedding Plan displays an ability on Burshtein’s part to oscillate between tones while maintaining a consistent, distinct voice.
Its own premise does The Wedding Plan no favors in the way of establishing distance between The Wedding Plan and your more traditional romantic comedy. Michal (Noa Koler) is a devoutly religious (her mother at one point says that “if she weren’t so religious she’d be perfect”) thirty-something unmarried woman, practically an old spinster by her community’s standards. She’s been dating unsuccessfully for over a decade and has grown cynical and desperate. In the film’s opening sequence, she tells a matchmaker that she doesn’t want to be alone – and perhaps more importantly, humiliated – any more. Finally, Michal gets engaged to a studious man, and they set the wedding date for one month from their engagement, which happens to fall on the eighth night of Hanukkah. As soon as we meet Michal’s groom, however, he summarily breaks up with her, causing her to spiral into a midlife crisis which makes up the central thrust of the film. For although she has no groom (as is made perfectly clear by the film’s aforementioned tagline) she refuses to cancel the wedding plans, insisting that God will send her a groom before the eighth night of Hanukkah.
Burshtein peppers her film with eligible candidates who look for a time like they’ll be Michal’s “the one.” Much of the film’s humor comes in these scenes, where Michal sits across a table from a man for the first time, while they try to get to know each other. There’s a fun – and ultimately somewhat tragic – date with a deaf man and his translator, a flirtation with an Israeli popstar, and a promising connection with a man who only recently found religion. The film’s funniest sequence, however, comes when she goes on a date with a man who refuses to look in her direction – he doesn’t look at women so as to make his eventual wife “the most beautiful woman in the world.” The way this scene plays out is brilliant – some of the best comedic writing and timing I’ve seen on the big screen in some time.
Noa Koler’s central performance is astounding, particularly when it comes to displays of Michal’s world-weariness. Through the film, Michal maintains a base level of skepticism, even – especially – when good things happen to her. This skepticism manifests itself with Michal exhibiting clear self-destructive tendencies; she is proposed to multiple times in the film and meets each one with disbelief and hesitation, even in her desperation to marry. She even ruins some perfectly valid opportunities by being picky and/or selfish. However, Koler grounds Michal in a level of humanity so deep that the audience simply cannot help but feel anything but love for the character. With every one of Burshtein’s long, gorgeous close-ups on Koler’s face we see those ten years of rejection and humiliation and isolation, and understand her disbelief that someone could actually want to marry her. Koler also has a strong aura of independence and intelligence that hint to possible reasons why Michal has found marrying within the religious community to be so difficult.
Michal owns and operates a mobile petting zoo, performing at children’s birthday parties and the like. (In perfectly Israeli form, she has a snake named Avi – a tidbit that is barely relevant to this review, yet I loved it so much I had to include it.) After a particularly unpleasant show, a client approaches her and asks if her business has been an obstacle to getting married. “All men want a delicate wife,” she says.
The rest of the cast is similarly stellar, with Burshtein getting much of the credit for establishing the film’s tone of naturalism in a setting rarely represented in narrative filmmaking. Particularly deserving of praise is Amos Tamam, who was unforgettably great in the Israeli sitcom Srugim, and who here plays the son of Michal’s matchmaker. Burshtein’s camera is as in love with Tamam as it is with Koler, and genuine warmth radiates off Tamam’s face every time he’s on screen. His character makes some choices late in the film that I would describe as being only convenient for the plot, and I have a hard time imagining an actor with less natural charm and earnestness than Amos Tamam getting away with it.
Burshtein has a very distinct way of filming dialogue scenes – often, they play out entirely in close up shots. She rarely establishes the space before entering a new scene, she’ll just cut right to a close up of Michal and allow the scene to play out. The film’s climactic moment takes place in front of a crowd of onlookers, all very interested in what is going on, yet it unfolds exclusively in close ups of the two characters centrally involved. It’s a jarring technique but one that lends itself perfectly to the tone and subject matter of The Wedding Plan. It takes a confident director to successfully pull off something so unorthodox.
The Wedding Plan is a film wherein the protagonist has an extended philosophical conversation with her seamstress – a character who appears in only one scene – about God, His will, faith, and religion. It’s a film whose closing shot reflects its opening shot in a breathtaking way. It’s a film that consistently defied my expectations and predictions. It’s a film that has the plot of a 90s romantic comedy but the weight and assurance of a Coen Brothers’ classic. As far as I’m concerned, Burshtein has cemented her status not only as one of Israel’s most important auteurs but as a filmmaker international audiences should have their eyes on.