Rama Burshtein exploded on the film world with her first feature, “Fill the Void.” The 2012 release announced the presence of a supremely gifted Israeli filmmaker from what some thought was an unlikely source, the Orthodox world. The New York-born Burshtein had to wait four years to complete her second film, but “The Wedding Plan,” which will play at the Tribeca Film Festival this month before opening theatrically in May, is a solid, if somewhat muted, follow-up.
“The Wedding Plan” is being billed as a romantic comedy and, given its premise, you might be forgiven if you expected a screwball comedy in the Howard Hawks/Leo McCarey mold. Michal (Noa Koler) is 32 and Orthodox, so she is particularly conscious of the ticking of the proverbial biological clock. When her fiancé abruptly decides to cancel their scheduled wedding, telling her, “I just don’t love you,” she decides that she will proceed without him. She hires a hall, plans a menu and invitations. Now all she needs, with 22 days left before her chosen date, is a bridegroom. It would be easy to play this setup for farce – think Julia Roberts or, more likely, Jennifer Anniston — but Burshtein is aiming for something considerably more nuanced.
In a sense, “The Wedding Plan” is a variation on “Fill the Void,” with another willful young woman playing off the expectations of her community to get the happily-ever-after she wants. (“Fill the Void” centered on a young religious woman who, after her sister dies in childbirth, is torn over whether to marry her husband.) At first, the comic potential of the “Wedding Plan” material seems to deny it the intensity of the more obviously fraught earlier film, but Burshtein has no interest in making a conventional comedy. Gradually one realizes that her intentions are again quite serious, and the new film, like its predecessor, is a subtle meditation on the place of single women in a religious community that places great store in its traditions of marriage.
“The Wedding Plan” is a surprisingly gentle and sweet film, a fascinating contrast to “Fill the Void.” I suspect it may be hard-put to find an audience these days, but it is a satisfyingly warm and charming piece of work and almost as much of a surprise in its quiet way as its predecessor.
Given the state of the Middle East it is natural that Israeli filmmakers seem to be turning to comedy. In addition to the Burshtein film, Tribeca’s program this year includes “Holy Air,” a farce about a down-on-his-luck family man (played by the film’s writer-director, Shady Srour) who in desperation hits on the novel idea of bottling and selling the “holy air” found on a biblical mountaintop in Nazareth. In a sense, you could read this as a riposte to “The Wedding Plan,” a satirical dig at the religious communities of all three major faith groups that congregate in Israel. Or it could be a more intimate comedy about the measures a man will take to preserve his family in an economic catastrophe. Either way, it looks to be pointedly topical.
The same might be said, obliquely, about the recent revival of the romantic spy thriller subgenre, specifically those movies set during WWII. Last year’s “Allied” seems to be the harbinger of films to come. “The Exception,” a first feature from veteran theater director David Leveaux, appears to be in the same vein. A German soldier (Jai Courtney) is sent to infiltrate the household of exiled Kaiser Wilhelm (Christopher Plummer), looking for potential disloyalty to the Nazis. Instead, he falls in love with a housemaid (Lily James) who may be a Jew in hiding. When Heinrich Himmler (Eddie Marsan) turns up for a visit, things come to a head.
It’s not hard to see the appeal of this subgenre. At a time when America’s foreign policy and military efforts seem confused and possibly ill-conceived, it is comforting to remember a period when the good guys and bad guys were easier to tell apart. Drape that historical period in the lush romanticism it frequently sported (“Casablanca” anyone?), and you have a potential audience draw. Of course, for actors like Plummer and Marsan, who specialize in out-sized characterizations, the genre is a tailor-made opportunity to live large.
Documentaries are always thick on the ground at Tribeca. Two of the most promising films in the program highlight rather unlikely figures in show business history. “Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story,” directed by Alexandra Dean, limns the singular career of Lamarr, perhaps the most beautiful woman ever to appear in a Hollywood film. But the film’s title has a second, more important significance; Lamarr, a Jew, was also a scientific genius whose innovative thinking contributed immensely to the U.S. war effort in WWII. Needless to say, until very recently this aspect of Lamarr’s career was rather less well known than her ’20s nude scene in “Ecstasy” or her rather somnolent work in countless MGM potboilers, but taken alongside recent biographies, “Bombshell” may redress that imbalance by placing new emphasis on her brilliance rather than her beauty.
No one would mistake Gilbert Gottfried for beautiful. But his iconoclastic, controversial success, built on a foundation of outrageous, usually tasteless humor and a public persona that is the human embodiment of fingernails on a blackboard, is both undeniable and unexpected. His latest incarnation, though, may be his most shocking one yet — dedicated family man. Neil Berkeley’s third feature documentary, “Gilbert,” is a candid profile of the New York-based comic and will have its world premiere at Tribeca.
The Tribeca Film Festival runs from April 20-30 at venues around the city. For information, go to https://tribecafilm.com/festival/.