Niagara Gazette

July 10, 2013

CALLERI: “Fill The Void” offers look at a woman living in a closed society

By Michael Calleri
Niagara Gazette

The serenity of a large Tel Aviv apartment is the focus of “Fill The Void,” a superb new movie about the belief in family, marriage and religion as seen by a young woman whose every decision in life has been made for her. The film tell us a number of extraordinary things about the society it examines.
 
In “Fill The Void, first-time director Rama Burshtein, tells a simple but beautiful story about Shira, a shy young woman living in an ultra-Orthodox community in Israel’s largest city. She is faced with a choice we’ve seen in hundreds of romantic comedies from Hollywood. Which man will she agree to marry? This is different from what man would she like to marry.
 
For Shira, the decision is fraught with myriad complexities. She must make a choice based on a number of conditions, including the opinions of members of her family — especially her mother’s, the tenets of her religion, and her personal feelings, which have less weight than they should have. Hadas Yaron as Shira, and Irit Sheleg as her mother Rivka, are both wonderful to watch and experience.
 
Burshtein is the first ultra-Orthodox Jewish woman in Israel to direct and write a feature-length film for a general audience. This is especially momentous because her insular religious community forbids watching secular movies and television. “Fill the Void” is just one of a handful of films to focus on an Orthodox religious community from within. It received seven Ophir Awards, which are Israel’s equivalent of the Academy Awards, winning for best feature film, director (Burshtein), screenplay (Burshtein), actress (Yaron), supporting actress (Sheleg), cinematography (Asaf Sudri) and make-up (Eti Ben Nun). It has also been honored at many film festivals.
 
In the movie, Shira is only 18, a sweet and unassuming, albeit, lovelorn bride-to-be. She has to choose a husband, and the suitable choices are slim, although one young man is chosen. After her sister Esther dies while giving birth. Shira faces pressure from her distraught mother to marry her widowed and broken-hearted brother-in-law Yochay (a very good Yiftach Klein), so he won’t move to Belgium with his newborn to marry someone else. Shira’s mother wants to keep her grandson nearby. Other family members offer their opinion. As would be expected, a scholarly rabbi is consulted. This is a truly difficult choice for Shira, who it seems has never had to fend for herself or make important decisions.
 
What keeps “Fill The Void” from descending into being just another interpretation of what we’d find in a Jane Austen’s novel is Burshtein’s talent for paring down this familiar theme to utterly believable essentials. She is determined to concentrate on the idea that times are changing in Israel’s cloistered Hasidic world, a world that is practically inaccessible to outsiders. Burshtein opens the curtain on the women in this community. She succeeds at revealing something about their lives, as well as their emotions and thoughts. How much should a woman like Shira know about the man she is going to marry? How much should she want to know?
 
Burshtein gives the audience a lovely sense of the ebb and flow of life among the ultra-Orthodox, with its rituals and music. Images are often bathed in a peaceful amber light. In every society weddings are either joyous or burdensome. Decisions are made that are either exuberant or overwhelming. Who should make these decisions? The bride? The groom? The members of both families?
 
The film flows in a calm and controlled manner, sometimes offering comedy, sometimes reflection. When indoor scenes, many of them involving characters discussing women and marriage, seem to back up against each other, Burshtein knows exactly when to take her movie outdoors. Her film has a rhythm that is inviting and reassuring. There are moments when you feel as if you are eavesdropping on secret conversations, the camera sits to the right or left of people talking. What’s exciting for moviegoers is that what’s being said is interesting.
 
“Fill The Void” is about traditions, but it’s also about lifting the veil. The modern world may be seen by some of the characters as an intrusion, but Burshtein has no fear of the modern world. Even the men in the film seem trapped by viewpoints that are slowly and carefully facing change.
 
The brother-in-law, who is almost as diffident as Shira, also receives advice from many quarters. Director Burshtein knows that her audience will choose sides in the debate she has put on the screen. It’s a debate about declaring one’s individuality when that declaration has long been forbidden. 
 
The movie’s final shot captures Shira’s face. It reveals her thoughts about what she has decided to do. The shot is perfect. Only she knows if she has made the right choice.