Film Review: ‘Through the Wall’

Rama Burshtein’s follow-up to “Fill the Void” brings romantic comedy to the Hasidic community, with relatively pleasing results.

Through The Wall Laavor Et Hakir
Courtesy of Venice Film Festival

The hop from Rama Burshtein’s ultra-Orthodox marriage drama “Fill the Void” to her ultra-Orthodox romantic comedy “Through the Wall” really isn’t very far. In both, marriage is the most important thing in a woman’s life, the only state that will make her complete. While Burshtein’s sophomore feature provides her 32-year-old protagonist with a riper understanding of why getting that ring is so important — love, companionship, societal acceptance — most of the viewing public will still question whether the kind of last-minute romance proposed here can truly lead to a lifetime of happy togetherness. There’s much to enjoy in “Wall,” as the heroine tests her resolve as well as her faith that God will provide her with a husband, yet it’s a messier film than “Void.” Nevertheless, box office response will probably be equally positive.

Like the director herself, Michal (Noa Koler) chose to be ultra-Orthodox though she had not been raised that way. She’s a strong-headed, independent woman who earns a living taking her mobile petting zoo around to kiddie events, and for the last 11 years has been desperate to get married. The opening scene, one of the best, sees Michal calling on Hulda (Odelia Moreh-Matalon), a sort of homeopathic Jewish witch doctor who gets rid of the evil eye with fish gall and intuition. Hulda promises Michal that if she is completely honest and wants it bad enough, she’ll have that husband.

A few months later (though the precise passage of time is difficult to distinguish on screen), Michal is about to marry Gidi (Erez Drigues). Hulda’s son Shimi (Amos Tamam) owns a catering hall, so she books it for the eighth night of Chanukah, but Gidi seems shut down lately. Then the bombshell: He doesn’t love her. Their marriage is off, yet Michal isn’t willing to retain her bachelorette status any longer, so she keeps the booking, convincing herself that within the 22 days remaining, God will send her a husband.

In the opening scene with Hulda (extremely well-played by Koler), Michal relieves her tension by explaining why she wants to get married so much: companionship, along with love, but also so she’s not humiliated by a community that looks on single women no longer in their 20s as either objects of deep pity (let’s not forget the aunt in “Fill the Void”) or aberrations. Perhaps Burshtein’s adherence to her Hasidic community prevents her from criticizing this unabashedly misogynistic vision, unless the scornful look thrown at Michal by an uptight mother at a children’s party is meant to be a veiled dig at the denigration of single women. If so, the point needs to be made more strongly, and if not, then there really is a problem here if Burshtein wants her film to travel outside the ultra-Orthodox community — who are largely discouraged from going to the cinema anyway.

Putting that issue aside, the film nicely plays with the standards of romantic comedy. Michal gives herself over to a marriage broker, who sets her up on dates with Hasidic men; cue enjoyably familiar (except for the peyes), humorous scenes in restaurants with a variety of unsuitable suitors. Then she makes a pilgrimage to Ukraine and the grave of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov (founder of the Breslov sect of Hasidism), where she prostrates herself on the tomb and promptly breaks down, begging God for a sign. Through the wall dividing men and women, a kind voice offers comfort. Once outside, she discovers that voice belongs to dreamy indie singer Yoss (Oz Zehavi, “Yossi”).

Michal is star-struck, but Yoss’ enigmatic projection of empathy is genuine, and the two strike up an unlikely bond. Burshtein’s talent for writing dialogue is at its best here, and she allows conversations to develop in eminently satisfying, pleasurable ways. As Michal’s desperation becomes more intense, and her date at the catering hall looms ever nearer, audiences are left wondering until the end who God will send as her groom. Of course, given the director’s faith, and her desire to “normalize” (a fraught word) the ultra-Orthodox community, there’s never a question that the Lord might not deliver; the only question is, who?

The “wall” of the title stands for the wall of our own doubts, the one that holds us back from fully realizing our dreams, which are reachable if only we believe in ourselves 100% — something of a Disney concept to be sure, but it also fits within the romantic comedy genre. Michal needs to break through that wall if she’s to find the fulfillment that God wants for her. Greater attention to the film’s non-metaphorical structure would have helped the editing, which feels rushed in places: Who is the handicapped friend Michal confides in, and why does she make only two very brief appearances? Why are there unusually long black spaces between certain scenes?

Koler, in her first major film role, has a strong presence (it’s almost impossible to share screen space with Zehavi and not be instantly forgotten), yet she nicely succeeds in making this forceful, unconventional woman a character who, notwithstanding her potentially off-putting orthodoxy, connects with all types of audiences. Too bad costume designer Hava Levy Rozalski saddles her with an endless succession of unflattering outfits. Even by Hasidic standards, these duds wouldn’t find takers in a thrift shop in Borough Park. Camerawork is less boldly elegant than in “Fill the Void,” sticking to a more breezily accessible style.

Film Review: ‘Through the Wall’

Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (Horizons), Aug. 31, 2016. Running time: <strong>110 MIN.</strong> (Original title: “Laavor et Hakir”)

  • Production: (Israel) A Norma Prods. production. (International sales: The Match Factory, Cologne.) Producer: Assaf Amir.
  • Crew: Director, writer: Rama Burshtein. Camera (color): Amit Yasour. Editor: Yael Hersonski.
  • With: Noa Koler, Amos Tamam, Oz Zehavi, Irit Sheleg, Ronny Merhavi, Dafi Alpern, Oded Leopold, Udi Pers, Jonathan Rozen, Odelia Moreh-Matalon, Erez Drigues.
  • Music By: