Fill the Void was Israel’s submission to the 2013 Oscars, and while it didn’t make the cut, it’s easy to see why newcomer writer-director Rama Burshstein’s film was their submission. It’s not a perfect film by any means. The narrative is sometimes clunky — it lurches rather than flows — and there’s an occasional tendency toward clichés. (Let’s face it, when a character has a near fainting spell she passes off as nothing and insists her husband not know about it, you know she’s not long for the story.) Yet it’s a film that takes an unusual situation — but not out of general understanding — and places it within the confines of a world totally foreign to most of us.The fact that we can relate to the situation makes it possible for us to connect with, at least briefly, the realm of Tel Aviv’s Orthodox Hassidic community. That the director is herself a part of this community lends an air of authenticity. That she merely compassionately observes her characters — without questioning or endorsing the community — makes it emotionally accessible on a human level. How you or I feel about their beliefs becomes largely immaterial because that’s only tangential.
When the film starts, 18-year-old Shira (Hadas Yaron) is — along with her family — thinking of marriage. In fact, she’s on a kind of preliminary scouting mission with her mother, Rivka (Irit Sheleg), to get a glimpse of the potential husband the community matchmaker has lined up for her. The tone is playfully comic with the pair unable to spot the likely candidate (a call to the matchmaker places him in the dairy section). When we see him, he hardly looks like love’s young dream, but Shira is apparently so used to the process and so excited by the very idea of getting married that she seems not to notice. All this, however, hits a snag when Shira’s older sister, Esther (Renana Raz), dies in childbirth. This leaves her brother-in-law, Yochay (Yitfach Klein), with an infant son that he relies heavily on Rivka to help him deal with. When circumstances make it practical for Yochay to marry a woman in Belgium, Rivka — not wanting to lose her grandson — has an alternate suggestion: Yochay should marry Shira. It doesn’t take much to sell him on the idea, but Shira is another matter. Not only is she not immediately thrilled with the idea of marrying a man 10 years her senior, but marrying her sister’s husband doesn’t seem right to her.
This is the conflict at the center of Fill the Void, but it’s less the story of whether Shira and Yochay will end up together that makes the film so interesting than it is the keen observation of the world these people inhabit. It’s the movie’s attention to detail that sells it, especially because the humanity of all the characters shines through. Even relatively marginal characters, such as the Rabbi (Melech Thal), are well drawn. He is generally presented as a somewhat amusing man, but when the film gets down to business, it becomes clear why this wise old bird is the community’s spiritual leader. Nothing that happens is remarkable in itself — the story is basically an offbeat romance — but the context makes it fresh, moreso than it might otherwise have been. We might not agree with the way of life depicted here, but it’s hard not to end up respecting it — despite the fact that the ending is deliberately ambiguous as to whether it’s a happy one. Rated PG for mild thematic elements and brief smoking.
Playing at Fine Arts Theatre