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Choices (?)

'Fill the Void' makes familiar a foreign community

July 9, 2013, 12:00 am

For those of us who have limited interaction with Orthodox traditions, Fill the Void will take some time getting used to. In the movies, it’s not often we see parents, in-laws, friends and neighbors insinuating themselves into the most personal of family situations and offering advice that isn’t strictly for comic relief.

Writer-director Rama Burshtein has taken these elements and made fascinating drama of them. Viewers outside Hasidic communities will not only be able to identify with Shira (Hadas Yaron), but they’ll empathize with her as well.

Fill the Void opens with Shira and her mother (Irit Sheleg), quietly spying on a young man in a grocery store whom it’s been suggested that Shira marry. Shira finds him handsome, and she seems to like him.

Later that evening, during Purim, Shira’s older sister, Esther (Renana Raz) and husband, Yochay (Yiftach Klein), are with the family when Esther, nine months pregnant and due any day, collapses in the bathroom. She dies, but her baby lives, and Yochay is now a single father to a son, Mordechay.

There isn’t much time for mourning in the house, as Yochay begins fielding offers for new wives. It’s then that Esther and Shira’s mother gets an idea: Maybe Shira can marry Yochay.

It’s at this point that Fill the Void may begin to alienate viewers, especially those of us who find the idea of brokering marriage bizarre or antiquated. Even more strange is its matter-of-fact take that marriage is as much a business transaction as it is an emotional commitment.

Shira is right there with you. She’s torn between honoring her sister and her family (and to a lesser degree, Yochay), and filling the void—so to speak—for her family, which has lost not only a daughter but may lose a grandson; it’s been suggested that Yochay move to Belgium to meet an Orthodox woman there who’s ready for marriage.

One of the interesting things about Fill the Void is how everything in it is weighted with spiritual significance. Common hellos and goodbyes are answered with “May God be with you.” Forget about the oppressive heat underneath layers of wool; how about the oppressive emotions with a heavy dose of constant religious scrutiny?

It’s here in which Fill the Void excels. Burshtein has made a movie that draws in outsiders—say, the non-Orthodox—and exposes the predicaments of the characters on screen as real as the predicaments we face.

Shira, for her part, is bitterly ambivalent about her duty to family and the feelings in her heart. Yaron, who’s excellent, conveys much with a look or a darting set of eyes. She’s bathed in glowing light by cinematographer Asaf Sudry, but she never seems otherworldly or angelical. This is a very grounded young woman dealing with an existential struggle.

She’s matched by Klein as Yochay, who gives a quietly powerful performance as a man who’s not really allowed to mourn his dead wife, but must find a replacement for her as soon as possible. That’s what is expected of him. He and Yaron do well expressing the emotional torment they’re feeling in as few words as possible.

There are tender moments in the movie, too, as when Shira’s mother, feeling the pressure of all the negotiations—and the loss of her daughter—says to her husband (Chaim Sharir), “I feel as if I’ll lose my mind.” He looks at her and says kindly, “Lose your mind. I’m here.”

It’s entirely possible that large swaths of people will watch Fill the Void and think, “I can’t believe this is 2013.” But it is 2013, even in a community where choices don’t seem like choices. The miracle is that we’re drawn in and feel for the characters, even if their lives are completely different from ours.


Written and directed by Rama Burshtein

With Hadas Yaron, Irit Sheleg and Yiftach Klein

CCA Cinematheque

90 min.



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