Rama Burshtein’s beautiful and intimate Fill the Void has a very specific setting – the ultra-Orthodox Hasidic Jewish community of Tel Aviv – but its story is a universal one about the struggle between one’s personal desires and the obligations one may feel to the family they love.
True, the choice 18-year-old eighteen-year-old Shira (Hadas Yaron, who rightly won the best actress prize at the Venice Film Festival for her sharply etched portrayal) is thankfully not one every young woman has to make: She plans to marry a young man of similar age and background until her beloved older sister Esther (Renana Raz) dies on the Purim holiday (as recorded in the Biblical Book of Esther it commemorates the deliverance of the Jewish people in the ancient Persian Empire from destruction) while giving birth to a son. That eventually leads to her mother (Irit Sheleg) advocating that Yochay (Yiftach Klein), Esther’s widower, and Shira marry to avoid seeing her grandson moving to Belgium so his father can marry a widow there instead.
It’s easy from my secular perspective to say, “No, don’t do that! Do what’s in your heart!” but therein lies one of the elements that makes this film work well – that viewpoint is clearly represented by Shira’s never-married aunt Hanna (Razia Israeli), who is greatly troubled by the not-so-subtle manipulations of Shira’s mother. But is Shira considering this match (she can’t actually be forced to do it) out of a sense of family duty, or does she have love for Yochay that might make this a real marriage? In just 90 well-paced minutes we get the answer.
The film’s writer-director says she was inspired to create Fill the Void by meeting a young woman that was engaged to marry the husband of her late sister and that one of her creative influences is Jane Austen. As you watch the film the heroine’s struggle between her own wishes and her desire to provide for those she loves has define echoes of Austen, and its setting – while fascinating – largely falls away as the human drama takes hold. Burshtein – herself a member of the ultra-Orthodox community – says in the production notes, “Fill the Void has nothing whatsoever to do with the religious-secular dialogue. That doesn’t interest me quite as much. Fill the Void opens a peephole into a tiny story taken from a very special and complex world. By its very definition, it avoids making any comparison between the two worlds. It has enough self-confidence to tell its own story. I believe that the only way to bridge these two worlds is through unprejudiced honesty. If there is to be such a bridge, it must emerge from some common denominator that can be found in the heart.”
The revelation of that heart is greatly aided not just by fine performances from all involved but by the soft lighting, deep focus and blurred backgrounds cinematographer Asaf Sudry contributes to the piece. This picture was submitted as Israel’s official entry into last year’s Best Foreign Language Film Oscar race; it may not have won that prize but the privilege of watching this intricate, intimate and honest story is an honor.
Fill the Void (www.fillthevoidmovie.com) opens today (July 12) in Nashville exclusively at the Regal Green Hills Stadium 16 (3815 Green Hills Village Dr.); see www.regmovies.com for times. Rated PG for mild thematic elements and brief smoking; in Hebrew with English subtitles, 90 min. Written and directed by Rama Burshtein. Starring Hadas Yaron, Yiftach Klein, Irit Sheleg, Razia Israeli, Renana Raz and Chaim Sharir.
*Photos by Karin Bar courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.