In films about a fringe community, whether it’s a tribe in the Amazon, the Pennsylvania Amish, or, in this case, a family of ultra-orthodox Jews in modern day Tel Aviv, there is a tendency to linger on moments revealing similitude between viewer and character, the scenes that make audiences think, “Oh, they have the same basic feelings and conflicts I’ve experienced.” Sometimes, just getting that single point across can be the entire point of the film. But while it’s incredibly important for bolstering understanding across cultures, it doesn’t necessarily provide viewers with a truly personally affecting experience. Director Rama Burshtein’s Fill the Void succeeds in familiarizing us with the domestic dramas of the Ultra-Orthodox but falls just short of being truly memorable as a film in its own right.
Burshtein herself is a religious Jewish woman who wanted to create a film that spoke authentically from inside the ultra-Orthodox community, as opposed to representations from outsiders that she feels highlight the community’s closed-mindedness and repression. Indeed, while film does indeed show a world bounded by religious laws and strictures, it’s also infused with warmth and kindness. Still, it’s hard to escape the fact that Burshtein only became religious in her adult life, once her film school education was underway. While the parents of her main character, Shira, do patiently give her some choice in her arranged marriage, it’s a bit of a stretch to imagine them giving her the choice to attend film school.
But, oy, enough with the basic feminism already. Fill the Void tells the story of the aforementioned Shira (Hadas Yaron), a sheltered but emotionally intuitive eighteen-year-old who is excitedly beginning the process of finding the right match through an arranged marriage. In a private moment, we watch as Shira gingerly places a married woman’s head covering on her head and regards herself proudly in the mirror, newly coronated. Shira’s plans are suddenly upended, however, by the tragic death of her older sister (Renana Raz) who is nine months pregnant with her first child. The family is grief-stricken, left only with the comfort of the baby boy that has survived. Yochay (Yiftach Klein), Esther’s husband, who we know from an earlier scene to have been truly in love with his wife, must now consider his options mere months after his wife’s death, and in his community, being a single father isn’t one of them. When a potentially suitable offer comes in for a marriage to a woman in Belgium, Esther’s mother (Irit Sheleg) realizes she must act quickly if she is to avoid being separated from her grandson so soon after losing her daughter. She suggests the idea of Yochay marrying Shira, and the rest of the film traces the subtle back-and-forth negotiations between the two as Shira struggles to make a decision that will be acceptable both to her family and herself.
Burshtein describes the film as a “a crazy love story,” but it feels less like a romance than a coming of age film, in which Shira comes to terms with the implications of a life-long marriage versus the excitement and fanfare of an engagement and wedding celebration. As is customary in their world, she and Yochay’s few meetings are pre-arranged and limited, and as Shira especially is unpracticed in speaking with the opposite sex, every word, every sentence, feels somehow simultaneously overly gestated and haphazard, thudding downward like a rock in the atmosphere of the scene. In these fraught negotiations of love, offense and affection are both given and taken so swiftly and imperceptibly that one might almost miss them if not for the magnificent facial expressions of the two actors, obviously in complete control of every twitch, crinkle, and tic. (It’s worth noting that Hadas Yaron won best actress for her chops here at the 2012 Venice film festival.)
While I appreciated the novelty of both Burshtein’s dropping me into the middle of such scenes as well as the actors’ obvious skill, I couldn’t avoid my own sneaking claustrophobia, brought about by film’s the shallow focus shots, heavy looks, and whispering. By the end, I almost didn’t care what Shira would decide. I admire Burshtein’s carefully-crafted portrait of this slice of ultra-Orthodox life, but I just can’t deny that my heart was left high and dry, up in the nosebleed seats of the women’s gallery of the synagogue.