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Review: The Wedding Plan (Israel, 2016)

Rama Burshtein's sophomore film manages to make -- from a tired plot -- a lively comedy with a lot to say about Orthodox Jewish women and spirituality.

By , 30 Jun 17
(5)  (2) (0)

Let’s just say The Wedding Plan, Rama Burshtein’s second feature, is a different kind of Rom-Com.

The film opens with the matronly protagonist Michal being grilled by a shadchanit (matchmaker) about why she wants to get married. Michal smears her face superstitiously with blood from a fish lying haplessly between them.

After a little prying, the matchmaker extracts Michal’s existential angst, and her longing for a husband: someone to love and make a home with. The matchmaker’s son owns a catering hall, and Michal recklessly books a room for her wedding, despite the whole not-yet-having-a-groom thing. Faith in God, she claims, will bring her a husband by the time of her wedding, in a few weeks. This is a hokey and unbelievable act of rashness, but the movie somehow abides enjoyably in spite of a very dumb plot.

It’s unusual to find a mainstream Israeli comedy that has a devoutly religious protagonist, and especially one who is a woman. The way Michal’s emotional life is portrayed – endearingly, believably, warts-and-all – is what made this movie both a pleasure to watch and also groundbreaking.

The Wedding Plan doesn’t glaze over Michal’s religiosity; it is in no way a secular film. In fact, even Michal’s mother seems to be annoyed by her devotion, at one point saying, “If she weren’t so religious, she’d be nearly perfect.” And yet, Michal’s character isn’t boxed in by religious propriety. She has spunk and intimacy and is relatable, even though most viewers, especially in the movie’s American release, can’t empathize with her search for a religious husband.

Burshtein’s comedic decisions are deliberate comments on women in Orthodox Jewish communities in Israel. (Her last film, Fill the Void, was a drama about a Haredi woman who has to decide whether to marry her dead sister’s husband – eek.) Michal’s livelihood is operating a mobile petting zoo; note the change in tone. The traveling zoo has its funny moments, but its purpose is as serious as Fill the Void’s was. In one scene, at a children’s birthday party, the only girl brave enough to pet the snake is chastised for being unladylike. Michal’s profession is amusingly subversive. Thought not explicitly treyf, it’s certainly unbecoming for a woman. I won’t speculate about any phallic imagery or Adam-and-Eve parallels of her snake-handling.

Michal and the matchmakers son, courtesy of Rotten Tomatoes.

Michal spends a lot of time wrestling with God, and her character commands a lot of spiritual depth despite the persistent levity. I guess this is what makes it a Jewish movie – there is a sense of questioning to the point of what Michal calls ‘despair’ – but that is a a foundation for, rather than an obstacle to, the humor. She quotes the Talmud while trying on a wedding dress. She asks God, “Why did you make me like this?” She could really use a therapist.

This is where The Wedding Plan differs from something like My Big Fat Greek Wedding. It’s less polished and iconic, but the humor here is subtler and more purposeful.

At one point, Michal goes to Ukraine to visit the tomb of the revered Rabbi Nachman. Expecting to find herself overwhelmed by religious zeal, she feels absolutely nothing, and weeps against the tomb, muttering to herself, “I’m a liar.” A pop star from back home is on the other side of the apparently paper-thin wall and is taken by Michal’s humility. He is secular; she is starstruck, and they have a sexless fling.

Why put this in the movie? Well, for one thing, this moment is spectacularly absurd. Michal thinks she is having an intimate, spiritual moment in solitude, but it turns out that she is being listened in on by her celebrity crush. But more than that, it brings into focus that her emotional depth is her best feature, not a blemish, and that she’s looking for someone with compatible values, which probably isn’t the atheistic, dread-locked starlet who speaks in pop-rock aphorisms. She cycles through several men. I won’t say whether she finds one in time.

Occasionally the movie veers into tactlessness, like in one scene when an Orthodox Japanese man is the butt of a cheap laugh. The search for Mr. Right is hackneyed, with plenty of saccharine dialogue. But overall, The Wedding Plan is a fun watch, and its keen reflections on Israeli society make it an important one, too.


The Wedding Plan Israel. Dialog in Hebrew. Directed by Rama Burshtein. Released May 12, 2017. Running time 1hr 50min. Starring Noa Kooler.


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