This time that we’re getting a too-sweetened take on Hasidism, and maybe of Jewish Orthodoxy in all of its manifestations.
The Wedding Plan directed by Rama Burshtein. Screening at Kendall Square Cinema, West Newton Cinema, and Lexington Venue.
By Gerald Peary
I’m making a documentary which includes among its cast the devout wife of an Hasidic rabbi who, mother of four, calls herself a feminist. Is she deluded, or should the definition of feminist be stretched to feisty, somewhat independent, religious women who still buy into the patriarchal ordering of the world? How do you classify Rama Burshtein, 50, the American ex-pat who, moved to Israel, has simultaneously embraced the strictures of Hasidism and, a woman, become the first breakout Heredi screenwriter-filmmaker? And how do you regard the heroines of her two films, Fill the Void and, now, The Wedding Plan, who take their own stubborn, willful paths to—what else?—connubial bliss?
A skeptical Washington Post film critic has posited it in this manner: “Like Fill the Void, The Wedding Plan extols a woman who takes control of her life-only to give it away.” Filmmaker Burshtein, when interviewed, sees her protagonists’ movement to matrimony in a totally opposite way. Not even an evangelical Christian could be more staunchly pro-marriage: “If a man or woman is not loved by someone of the opposite sex, they are not whole. …But marriage isn’t secondary to life. It is life. It is not a side dish. It’s a main dish.”
Is this the kind of filmmaker that we liberals should endorse? I suppose so, if the movies are persuasive and good. Several years ago, when I was on the jury of the Haifa Film Festival, we gave Fill the Void our highest award, considering it an impressive, very touching, extremely polished first film. Those in the majority spent hours arguing in our jury deliberation with the mortified minority, secular Israelis who didn’t want to prize a work they felt soft-pedaled the cultish aspects of Hasidism.
I’m not as fond of The Wedding Plan, which substitutes the palpable fervency of Fill the Void with so-so comedy. It also feels a step backwards as cinema, shot indifferently by cinematographer Amit Yusar, and populated with amiable but often quite amateurish actors. So I’m more inclined to agree this time that we’re getting a too-sweetened take on Hasidism, and maybe of Jewish Orthodoxy in all of its manifestations.
Though Michal is a baalat teshuva, a recent convert to Hasidism, she hangs out still with her Orthodox and more secular friends without any religious tension between them. But perhaps a bigger deceit is also the film’s central conceit: an Orthodox story in which the center-stage characters are all worthy, energized women, and the man are exiled to the side, all one-dimensional cutouts: unsuited, homely suitors or hot-looking elusive objects of desire.
Is Orthodoxy really a Woman’s World?
The story is Jewishy Jane Austen. Quick-witted Michal (Noa Koler) is unmarried at the ung-dly age of 32, and her wimpy, longtime fiancé finally gathers the nerve to tell her he doesn’t love her. Michal, who craves getting married and having babies, is taken aback but not defeated. She brazenly rents a marriage hall, invites guests, and vows to walk down the aisle with a nice religious man in three weeks, the last night of Hanukkah. Her problem is to find that unknown man.
The best thing about The Wedding Plan is the building of dramatic tension as that day bodes closer and closer and closer. The most interesting metaphysical element is that brash Michal has the gall to challenge G-d to be there in her corner, bringing her a groom. A rabbi admonishes her, but that doesn’t quell her hubris. The wedding will happen, that she deeply believes. The three-week countdown includes hanging out with female relatives and girlfriends, going out on a bunch of unsuccessful dates with weird men, and somehow managing a quick Hasidic trip to the Ukraine to worship at the grave of the Breslev dynasty’s founding Rebbe, Rabbi Nachman (1772-1810).
In the Ukraine, she has, to me, a very improbable flirtation with a touring Israeli rock star, Yoss (Oz Zehavi). Sorry, no way he would go for her and want to marry her. The doorbell rings at her home back home in Israel: standing there, smiling sexily, is the Israeli Sting. But even more improbable is the film’s actual conclusion, at the shul, with Michal in her wedding dress. Filmmaker Burshtein allows a shameless plot contrivance to make things Kosher. Or is that G-d himself coming forth with a deus ex machina sit-com ending?
Gerald Peary is a retired film studies professor at Suffolk University, Boston, curator of the Boston University Cinematheque, and the general editor of the “Conversations with Filmmakers” series from the University Press of Mississippi. A critic for the late Boston Phoenix, he is the author of nine books on cinema, writer-director of the documentaries For the Love of Movies: the Story of American Film Criticism and Archie’s Betty, and a featured actor in the 2013 independent narrative Computer Chess.