This film review of “Fill the Void” was published in a slightly different form in the Melbourne edition of the Australian Jewish News on 28 November 2013. Sydney release to follow.
Written and directed by Rama Burshtein
Starring Hadas Yaron, Chaim Sharir, Ido Samuel, Irit Sheleg, Yiftach Klein and Hila Feldman
I am old enough to remember an historic moment in Israeli film: when “Beyond the Walls” was released in Australian cinemas in 1984 – the first time an Israeli film opened here theatrically. At the time, Israeli films were rough, unsophisticated – and rare.
How times have changed. This week’s opening of “Fill the Void”, following its successful premiere at the Jewish International Film Festival, shows just how far the Israeli films have come.
“Fill the Void” is set in an ultra-Orthodox community in modern day Israel, and tells an intimate Jane Austen-style story of Shira, an 18 year old woman who is facing a major life choice. When her older sister Esther dies in childbirth, she comes under increasing pressure to marry her late sister’s husband, Yochay (Yiftach Klein). In that way, her baby nephew, the first born of the next generation and beloved by all, would remain in Israel. This is the alternative to the tempting offer that Yochay has of a match with a suitable widow who lives in Belgium. Thus the choice is set young Shira, who had been expecting someone much closer to her age.
Shira (winningly played by Hadas Yaron) is already preparing for marriage, and having a number of “dates”, ultra-Orthodox style. These consist of short ‘at home’ interviews with immature young men, barely older than her, who ask clunky questions. Shira, by contrast, is wise beyond her years, and has an inner stillness and a beautiful – but not yet fully appreciated – soul.
Ultimately, it is women who drive this film – Esther’s death, an aunt with an unusual physical affliction, Shira’s choice and the pressure on Shira from her mother (Irit Sheleg), a powerful figure indeed. The men, try as they might, are secondary to the women’s concerns – and their ultimate power and control.
Writer/director Rama Burshtein is, apparently, the first ultra-Orthodox woman to direct a dramatic feature film aimed at a wide audience. It may be a while before we see another: New York-born Burshtein became religious after attending the Sam Spiegel Film School in Jerusalem; it’s hard to imagine an ultra-Orthodox woman choosing to study secular film-making. But after Burshtein’s lead, anything is possible.
Modern films with Chassidic characters are not new. Chaim Potok’s book “The Chosen” (1981) was made into a well-received film. Barbra Streisand’s “Yentl” (1983) examined romance from an unusual feminist perspective. Sidney Lumet’s “A Stranger Among Us” (1992) detailed a murder investigation in New York’s Chassidic community. It’s fair to say that these films – all written and directed by Jews – still had an “outside in” perspective on ultra Orthodox Jewish life. “Fill the Void” is different, made by people who know it intimately.
And “Fill the Void” is indeed intimate, mostly set in small, crowded, almost claustrophobic interiors. The focus is on the characters and their relationships with each other. Each gesture and each word matters; Burshtein exhibits an unexpected level of restraint and control in the scenes. Each frame has meaning.
Although set in modern-day Tel Aviv – an interesting choice, not Jerusalem or B’nei Brak – one reason for the film’s success is its timelessness; it could just as easily have been set in modern New York or Europe a century ago. But a good script and a strong director require actors with the skills to make it happen, and here Burshtein allowed herself to cast non-religious actors. As Shira, whose emotional journey provides the film’s core, Yaron gives a performance of exquisite subtlety. She won best actress at the Venice Film Festival and as well as Israel’s 2012 “Ophir” Awards (where the film virtually swept the awards), and some even promoted her for a possible Oscar nomination (nice idea, but unfortunately no chance).
Intergenerational tensions, the politics of marriage and the competition between women for the best men – Austen presented these 200 years ago. “Fill the Void” provides a fresh take on these timeless themes, in an unusual but somehow appropriate setting. The result is well worth watching.