What makes Rama Burshtein one of the most interesting contemporary directors in the world is a complex web of any explanation, but one that unveils the sort of authorship and command she has on her craft and stories. This explanation stems from Bursthein's biography; she grew up secular, and American, and late in her life converted to Hasidic Judaism. Her two films, Fill the Void and the most recent The Wedding Plan, both deal with marriage within a Jewish Orthodox environment and both deal with women at the center of a marital conflict and under duress. Burshtein dresses these stories with many fruitful ingredients: intimacy, humor, tragedy, anxiety, faith, and independence. These ingredients create dense portraits, extremely detailed in emotional observance of the complexities women face when empowering themselves in a rigid social system. Breaking barriers notwithstanding, these stories are not indictments of Jewish Orthodoxy. Rather, they float in some introspective gray area.
Admittedly, I cannot accurately sharpen my observation of her work because here is the thing about watching her films: perception wildly varies as her films are purposefully open-ended. So when I walk away from these stories, I don't know how much of what I saw is a subversive remark on Orthodoxy or just my secular inclinations stamping their assumptions onto the image. Initially, this standoff is frustrating, because more questions are raised than revelations. After prudent moments of contemplation, replaying the gratifying scenes over in my head, this frustration turns into excitement and a frenetic curiosity.
So when it comes to The Wedding Plan (you must have forgotten this was a review of the film), I find myself thinking there is far more to this film than meets the eye. Many outlets are describing it as a romantic comedy. Although it may be true, that sort of label places a lot of unfair expectations because The Wedding Plan is far from a traditional, Western rom-com. It's plot, which might be the closest aspect to a mainstream rom-com, involves Michal (played immacuately by Noa Kooler), a thirty-something who is one month away from getting married before her fiance professes cold feet and an absence of any love for her. Determined, no obsessed, with being married, as it indicates a high social status in her community, Michal plans to have her wedding in a month and she insists on finding a groom with the help of God's divine intervention.
Ludicrous is an understatement, and the sheer absurdity of the premise provides much of the tense moments but Burshtein does not let this frenzy of a plot take over what she does best. This starts with her masterful direction of actors. Fill the Void featured an extraordinary ensemble, headed by Hadas Yaroun and her subdued Shira. Kooler's Michal is bubbly and quite confrontational. She is the kind of person who desperately clings to a situation somehow thinking she's got full control over it. Natural chemistry flows between Kooler and her co-stars, most notably the woman who play her sister and friend. Burshtein also brings back Irit Sheleg, a fine character actor from Fill the Void, who once again plays a mother exhibiting immense care and formidable strictness, finalizing another successful ensemble, mostly made up of women, who display a spectrum of feelings and ideas about love, marriage, and selfhood.
Continuing a similar visual approach like in Fill the Void, cinematographer Amit Yasuf rarely uses wide shots, full shots, or establishing shots, favoring medium, medium close ups, and close ups. Very rarely do we stray from Michal and its significance is paramount for Burshtein's continual concentration on keeping things open. We watch Michal's face, the way it bends and curves slightly or dramatically, to the many things she encounters, and a direct line of sympathy is established between her and the audience. As much as things become humorous at times, our closeness with Michal sensitizes our reactions towards mments of pain and frustration. There are numerous moments where the anxieties of an impossible proposition are made visible on Michal's face, surfacing from the deep dark trenches thought to be overwhelmed by positive faithfulness. And it is made even more complex when Michal's character still upholds her independent right to choose a suitable husband rather than just pick one because that's what needs to be done. In a way, although she relies on God for good things to happen, she is proudly picky at whatever 'miracle' is thrown at her. Returning to the cinematography, Burshtein and Yasuf both know that staying close to Michal, her face along with many other mannerisms, allows us room for personal rendering.
And this is both a huge strength and somewhat of a weakness. Simultaneously, The Wedding Plan relishes in formatting to romantic comedy tropes, and there is delight in how dating scenes are handled (one in particular features a suitor who has conditioned himself not to look at women) while also providing thin scenarios and story threads that may act as unnecessary fluff. In a sense, it creates a very thin line between relying too much on these tropes and using them just enough for the purposes of unique commentary. It ends up holding together because of Kooler's ecstatic presence, both a glue for some of the film's wavering and the sole justification for all of the film's inconsistencies. Essentially, she humanizes a plot that would never be taken seriously in any other context.
How seriously we should take this film depends on what I mentioned at the beginning of this piece; how much you think Burshtein is critiquing on Orthodox standards versus how much it is the audience's perspective. How this film unfolded for me is one that will keep me puzzled and curious for a long time. Knowing full well the open-ended characteristics of her filmmaking, I braced for any sort of vague presentation in all elements of the the filmmaking. It's hard for me to put into words these feelings when I have to cloak the events that concluded the film, but let me say that there is much argument in favor of a full critique of traditional romantic comedy stories insofar as there is a lighter critique on Orthodoxy. Quite possibly, Burshtein has taken us for a slyly scathing ride into a disappointing fantasy world, some sort of subtle deconstruction of genre in an effort to talk about love and faith. When watching the last fifteen minutes, there are curious filmic choices, from shot type to blocking to even performance. It is both absolutely brilliant and maddening at the same time. I'll stop there, in fear that I would either give something away or sound like a deranged fool. Who knows if all of this is just in my head? But this sort of crazed uncertainty is why I love the film so much when all is said and done.
The takeaway for a perplexingly enjoyable film like The Wedding Plan is that it has both moments familiar and sweet in nature and moments of wry inspection. No matter how much I am wondering what the intentions of this film were, I do know there is a directorial assurance drenched on each and every frame. Another dense work by a great filmmaker, Rama Burshtein has become a voice all her own.