First-time writer-director Rama Burshtein’s moody matrimonial drama Fill the Void takes us into a religious and cultural world so insulated few outside its influence would even recognize it. Shot in Israel among the Haredim (the most conservative of Hasidic Jewish sects), it is a foreign film in every sense of the word.
Our main character, Shira (Hadas Yaron), is a plainly pretty 18-year-old girl living in an extremely old-fashioned, ultra-Orthodox Hasidic community in Tel Aviv. As she is of appropriate birthing age, Shira is giddily scoping out every teenage boy with forelocks and a giant fur hat, looking for a good mate. But tragedy intervenes when Shira’s older sister Esther (Renana Raz) dies during childbirth. Rather than mourning the loss of a wife/daughter/sister, everyone in the community becomes deeply concerned with getting Esther’s widower, Yochay (Yiftach Klein), hitched again as soon as possible. Before Esther’s body is even cold, all involved have identified young Shira as the perfect mate for Yochay.
To her credit Burshtein shies away from the sort of faux exoticism that outsiders tend to lavish on colorful foreign cultures. Burshtein is, in fact, the first ultra-Orthodox woman to direct a film for general audiences. As a result Fill the Void is rather prosaic in its depiction of life among Hasidic Jews. It’s hard to tell exactly how the ultra-Orthodox would react to this mild, arm-twisting “romance.” But we can safely assume the majority of filmgoers will come from outside that specific faith. Fill the Void doesn’t try particularly hard to act as a primer on Hasidic life and culture, dumping us in the middle of its marital dilemma sans context.
Just what Burshtein’s attitude toward arranged marriage is supposed to be isn’t easy to suss out. The film appears faintly, silently critical of the practice. Yet it remains a resolutely old-fashioned “women’s picture.” Like some Jewish Jane Austen novel, Fill the Void milks all its drama from who is going to marry whom and when. In fact there’s so much weeping and hand-wringing over the idea of marriage and procreation, you have to wonder if the Haredi community thinks of anything else.
There’s little doubt that Burshtein’s insider perspective is an accurate one, but how are we expected to feel about the tale presented here? Is Shira being rescued from life as an 18-year-old old maid by getting hitched to her sister’s husband? Or is there something vaguely creepy about this situation in which a bunch of old guys with beards decides what’s best for the baby factories in their lives?
The film works up the tiniest flicker of frisson between Shira and Yochay. So maybe it is a match made in Heaven. Still, discussing marriage contracts with your brother-in-law over a plate of cookies in your parents’ parlor isn’t exactly the height of passion. Or as Shira puts it, “A deed must be done and I want to do it to everyone’s satisfaction.” Whoa! Cool your jets there, sister, we’re trying to maintain a PG rating.
Fill the Void is a mature drama that refuses to create heroes and villains or to condemn centuries-old social practices. It is, to say the least, evenhanded. Burshtein’s view of a world ruled by unwavering ritual is intriguing. “May God comfort you among the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem,” guests repeat at a funeral with a regularity that is both comforting and numbing. But at the same time, characters like Shira and Yochay never really come to life as human beings for the audience. Are they happy or sad, empty or fulfilled to simply repeat the duties of their staid and stoic ancestors with barely an acknowledgment of their own personal wants and needs? Perhaps that’s just the sort of debate the filmmaker is trying to ignite here. Of course that might have been easier if viewers knew a little more about the characters and what’s going on inside their heads.