Problems of reception always arise when religious directors choose to celebrate their communities. With “Fill the Void,” Rama Burshtein’s impressive debut, there’s so much skill on display that auds disinclined to look kindly on pics presenting marriage as a woman’s ultimate goal will struggle to find technical faults. Stunningly shot in shallow focus, giving the ladies a soft incandescence, the film looks with great sympathy on a young woman being pressured by her mother to marry her late sister’s husband. Sure to generate hours of post-cinema discussion, “Void” will fill seats at fests and targeted art houses.
The press notes say that Burshtein previously made films for the Orthodox Jewish community, “some of them for women only.” It’s unclear exactly what kinds of pics these are, but it’s evident the helmer, a formerly secular Jew who joined the Haredim (the ultra-Orthodox), knows what she’s doing as she shines a uniquely femme-centric light on this generally hidden world. Her women are strong while accepting their circumscribed roles: The pic could carry the subtitle “Rabbis Are a Girl’s Best Friend” without a shred of irony.
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Yet it’s too easy to be dismissive of the p.o.v., and while many might be disappointed by an ending that seems like a copout, it’s worth contemplating parallels between Burshtein’s expertly written characters and the figures populating the novels of Jane Austen, the helmer’s stated influence. Of course, Austen’s women have longer courtships, aren’t forced to cover their heads after marriage and, crucially, live in the early 19th century.
Purim is a joyous holiday, but it turns tragic for the well-to-do family of Rabbi Aharon (Chaim Sharir) when elder daughter Esther (Renana Raz) dies giving birth to baby Mordechai. Only the infant can offset the grief of mother Rivka (Irit Sheleg), sister Shira (Hadas Yaron, outstanding) and husband Yochay (Yiftach Klein). Shira, 18, was looking with favor on a prospective arranged match, but with Esther’s death, her father can’t face the idea of an empty nest and postpones marriage plans for his youngest.
Rivka and Shira care for Mordechai, and though a still-grieving Yochay enjoys a close rapport with his in-laws, his mother urges him to look for a new wife who can raise the baby. For Rivka, taking Mordechai away would be an unbearable trial, and she hits on the idea of pairing Yochay with Shira.
The thought hadn’t crossed Yochay’s mind, and it’s certainly not Shira’s dream of her future. In a beautifully written piece of dialogue — conversations have the satisfying appeal of perfectlyconstructed dances — the headstrong young woman tells her brother-in-law she wants what he and her sister had: a match between two virginal equals. Pressures from her family mount, with Rivka pushing for the marriage and a heartbroken Aharon practically inert, yet the decision rests with Shira.
Burshtein is keen to show that women in the Haredi community — on the sidelines but always watching — have a voice that’s valued, and Shira is the perfect vehicle. Modeled on strong-willed Austen figures on the threshold of womanhood, Shira doesn’t always know what she wants but is reluctant to let anyone else decide for her. The sympathetic Yochay coaxes her into finding her voice, respecting her force while making certain it’s properly directed.
“Fill the Void” is unarguably a partisan romance, throwing a golden light (at times literally) on the Haredi community, and although Shira is resolutely her own woman, there’s no denying her limited options. Family friend Frieda (Hila Feldman, memorable in a difficult role) and handicapped aunt Hanna (Razia Israely, strong) are pathetic figures because they’re old maids, and there’s no suggestion that a fulfilling life can exist outside the marriage bond. Many crix will likely point out that while Burshtein has a career, none of the women here have lives outside home and synagogue.
As a window into an insular community helmed by an insider, the film offers a more nuanced picture than Gidi Dar’s gentle comedy “Ushpizin.” Tellingly, that pic was directed by a secular man but scripted and starring ultra-Orthodox performers, whereas “Void” is made by a Haredi woman yet stars secular thesps. Ensemble playing is faultless, with special kudos to Yaron.
D.p. Asaf Sudry (“Beaufort”) never fails to impress, using shallow focus to fix the gaze on the women while bathing them in a soft-edged luminescence. Close-ups offer a level of intensity that never feels obtrusive, and lighting is assisted by Chani Gurewitz’s superb costume designs that further soften the actresses’ faces. A great deal of music is used, all fitting naturally within the ultra-Orthodox community where prayers are regularly chanted rather than spoken (but not by women). Burshtein’s decision to film in Israel’s “sin city” of Tel Aviv (her home) rather than Jerusalem lets her show a world where Haredi and secular society live in separate but non-antagonistic spheres.