“Fill the Void” is an intimate, sensitive portrait of life, love, tragedy and tradition within the world of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox Jews. Writer-director Rama Burshtein turns her camera on her own community and presents a tender look at people bound by faith, ritual and traditional gender roles.
The story Burshtein tells reveals not just the patriarchy — where rabbis, fathers and matchmakers decide who marries whom — but the female power behind that insular “man’s world.”
Shira (Hadras Yiron) is 18, marriage age. Her mother (Irit Sheleg) fairly obsesses over this, with anxious calls to a matchmaker, furtive “check out this guy” treks to the supermarket where they can eyeball a potential mate without him knowing it.
All mama Rivka wants is a guy like the man her oldest daughter Esther (Renana Raz) married — a “good man” of the faith who will provide for her and keep her close to home. Rivka’s wishes become paramount when Esther dies in childbirth. There’s a grandchild to care for and dote over. Yochay (Yiftach Klein) cannot raise the baby himself. He’ll need to remarry, perhaps to someone far away. And that sets a grief-stricken Rivka to scheming.
Hadras Yiron, sort of a younger Greta Gerwig look-alike, plays Shira as a mature-for-her-age 18 year-old. But not that mature. She’s indecisive. And she’s not a young woman willing to marry her brother in law, which is her mother’s plan. That’s “too close,” Shira thinks. That’s “too Old Testament” the rest of us think. Yochay, who might have been the villain of this tale, is slow to warm to the idea as well.
As much as this community allows, Shira speaks her mind. “This isn’t right.” She can seem flighty, which is age-appropriate. Her sadness and indecision truly comes through in the music she lapses into as she plays accordion for the local school where she works.
She’s under the influence not just of her nagging mother, but of her armless spinster aunt (Razia Israeli) who long ago took to wearing the married woman’s head scarf “just to stop the embarrassing questions,” and of sad spinster-to-be Frieda ( Hila Feldman), who figures she would be the right one to step in of the dead Esther.
Burshtein, whose film was Israel’s submission to the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar (it’s in Hebrew with English subtitles), maintains the mystery of the story as she delicately films the people and traditions of this closed community. The men, with their beards, their archaic head-wear and uniform dark clothing, meet and sing and negotiate and plan. And the women serve tea and sit awaiting the men’s decisions — some of which the women have themselves set in motion.
Burshtein’s sharply-observed film misses many opportunities to make broader statements on this subculture and refuses to pass judgment on it, no matter how limiting the life can look to an outsider. “Fill the Void’s” greatest virtue is in the ways her characters take us beyond stereotypes even as she herself questions the value system of a culture that is so focused on religion, marriage and procreation that it holds few attractions to those not born into it.
MPAA Rating: PG for mild thematic elements and brief smoking
Cast: Hadas Yaron, Yiftach Klein, Irit Sheleg
Credits: Written and directed Rama Burshtein. A Sony Pictures Classics release.
Running time: 1:30