Film Review: Fill the Void

Israel’s official submission for Oscar’s 2012 Best Foreign Language Film is a stunning melodrama centered on an ultra-Orthodox Jewish community and prospects for a tragedy-fueled arranged marriage between a teen and older man. The film is a

Here’s “men in black” of a different kind for filmgoers, as first-time feature director Rama Burshtein’s characters in Fill the Void, including its females, are highly conservative, humorless and anti-feminist. The film’s Hasidic Tel Aviv community (Burshtein shot on location) is certainly no North Korea, but a lot of moviegoers will be curious to penetrate this well-protected, little-seen corner of Jewish life as a foreign land within a foreign land.

Burshtein’s stunning debut proves that access isn’t just gold for documentary filmmakers. As a Jew who became ultra-Orthodox as an adult, she was able to go inside Tel Aviv’s ultra-Orthodox Hasidic community for her story, at the heart of which is beautiful 18-year-old Shira (Hadas Yaron), excited about her in-the-works engagement to a suitable man from a good family.

But before the engagement can proceed further, tragedy strikes. Shira’s older married sister Esther (Ranana Raz) dies on the Purim holiday giving birth to her first child, who survives. Especially devastated by this bleak turn is Shira’s mother Rivka (Irit Sheleg), also further crushed when she learns that Esther’s widowed husband Yochay (Yiftach Klein) may be taking the motherless infant son to Belgium, where his family has found a suitable mate who refuses to relocate to Israel. Desperate to keep the baby near her as he’s all that remains of Esther, Rivka takes action and proposes that Yochay instead marry Shira.

Interestingly, the influence of Shira’s rabbi father Aharon (Chaim Sharir) in this dilemma that swirls in so male-dominated a world is minimized. As the local religious leader, Aharon’s foremost duty, according to Purim custom, and what occupies his time is to hand out charity to the community’s needy.

Shira’s growing conflict is that, in spite of her enthusiasm for the previously arranged engagement that was in the works, now pressure mounts from Rivka and other family members for her to marry Yochay. But initial meetings with him are awkward and he too is torn, as the Belgian prospect his family found seems promising. Furthermore, he’s in no rush to remarry. Shira and Yochay slowly get to know each other better. And the consequences of their growing familiarity, always compelling attention, are thankfully not always predictable.

The harsh milieu of Fill the Void, including the stark customs and dark, severe sets, may be distasteful to many (including secular Jews, feminists, liberals and design aesthetes), but this world for many outside orthodoxy will also be perversely fascinating.
Performances are wonderful. Burshtein told press that the main actors, including the Venice award-winning Hadas Yaron in her feature debut, were not even from the Orthodox community. Significantly, the universal emotions conveyed here require no Torah study.