Directed by: Rama Burshtein.
Written by: Rama Burshtein.
Starring: Hadas Yaron (Shira), Yiftach Klein (Yochay), Irit Sheleg (Rivka), Chayim Sharir (Aharon), Razia Israeli (Aunt Hanna), Hila Feldman (Frieda), Renana Raz (Esther), Yael Tal (Shifi), Michael David Weigl (Shtreicher), Ido Samuel (Yossi), Neta Moran (Bilha), Melech Thal (Rabbi).
We do not see many films made from inside insular religious communities. There is a reason for this of course – they tend to be old fashioned and don’t really embrace movies about anything, let alone themselves, and they don’t want their dirty laundry aired in public. This makes sense, but it also leads to the only movies being made about them to be made by outsiders – who often view them as backwards or misogynistic. The film that immediately comes to mind when talking about Orthodox Jews is Boaz Yakin’s A Price Above Rubies (1998), which certainly fits that description – although I did quite like it. But now comes Rama Burshtein’s wonderful debut film Fill the Void – which is said to be the first Israeli film directed by an Orthodox woman. Her view of the community, while not all roses, is certainly more positive than Yakin’s – and more fascinating.
The movie is anchored by a remarkable performance by young Hadas Yaron, who plays Shira, an 18 year woman. While marriages aren’t not necessarily arranged in this community, there is a way that they go about doing it – that involves parents brokering the “deal”, and the blessing of the local Rabbi. The couple have a few “dates” – which really just involves two shy teenagers sitting in quietly in a room together, both too scared to say much of anything to each other. Shira thinks she is going to marry the Miller boy – and is happy about that. But everything changes when her beloved older sister Esther dies in childbirth, leaving behind a grieving husband Yochay (Yiftach Klein) and a newborn son. When the Miller’s back out of the arrangement, for reasons that remain unclear, Shira’s mother Rivka (Irit Sheleg) thinks it would be a good idea for Shira to marry Yochay instead – especially because in this community, a single man raising a baby by himself is unthinkable, and his other option is moving to Belgium to marry a widow with kids of her own.
I can picture how Fill the Void would look if it were made by an outsider to this community – Shira would be pressured by the old men of the community to marry Yochay, although she doesn’t want to, and fights against it. The movie would either end with Shira forced into a marriage she doesn’t want, or leaving the community she left behind. Burshstein takes neither approach. Shira’s father, Aharon (Chayim Sharir) is a quiet man, who doesn’t insist on anything for Shira apart from her considering the marriage to Yochay. The Rabbi asks Shira how she feels about the impending marriage, and when she tells him “emotions don’t matter”, he tells her emotions are all that matters. He isn’t going to give the marriage his blessing unless he believes it is something that both Yochay and Shira want. Even Rivka, who is the driving force behind pushing Shira towards Yochay isn’t quite as demanding as she might otherwise be.
Having said that, Burshtein doesn’t paint this community as all rosy. Shira’s Aunt Hanna, an armless woman who never married, is looked at with pity by her family, as is the much younger Frieda (Hila Feldman), who is still in her 20s, but is past the age most women marry. Burhstein’s film shows how in this community, women are looked upon as somewhat inferior if they do not marry.
The film is fascinating because it tells the story from inside this community, and sees it with clear eyes. For the Jews in this community, everyday decisions are measured by duty, morality and faith – they take these questions seriously in every decision they make. The film is also beautiful to look at – with its hazy cinematography.
At the center of the movie is a stunning performance by Yaron as Shira. She is a young woman – a girl really – who is put in a nearly impossible situation, and has to decide what to do. On one hand, she knows it is her duty to marry Yochay, who seems kind, and who is genuinely loves – but more as a brother than a potential husband. On the other hand, she wants her own husband – not her sister’s – someone she can build her own life with. Besides, wouldn’t Frieda be a more appropriate match for Yochay anyway?
Yochay remains an enigma throughout the movie. He clearly loved Esther, but now he needs to marry someone else. Marrying Shira would allow him to stay in Israel and as part of Ether’s family who he gets along with. But is that why he wants to marry Shira? Is even a part of him a lecherous older man, who looks who wants a younger, inexperienced wife – who it must be said is jaw droppingly beautiful? While the movie lets us in on Shira’s complex thought process and religious struggle to do the right thing, Yochay is seen from more of a distance.
The movie ends on just the right ambiguous note. What is going through Shira’s head in those final moments? Relief? Fear? Curiosity? Regret? Happiness? I cannot say, but that moment has stuck with me – much like the rest of the movie.