Israel's entry into this year's Oscar Awards, Fill the Void is a film that simultaneously captures the intimacy of a strict faith community while also telling a story that feels universally relevant. Shira (Hadas Yaron, Out of Sight) is an 18-year-old Orthodox Hasidic Jew who dreams of marrying a good Jewish man and raising a good Jewish family. She is endearingly idealistic and refreshingly human, both traits not often afforded Hasidic Jews in cinema. She lives in a community that still practices what seems unfathomable to most Americans - arranged marriages, though there is certainly an element of choice within the defined constraints of faith, family obligations and cultural expectations.
When tragedy strikes and her married and nine months pregnant eldest sister Esther (Renana Raz) dies during childbirth, Shira's own matching is put on hold as the family grieves and deals with the effects of the tragedy on the now widowed groom Yochai (Yiftach Klein, Policeman) and tne newborn baby that survives. The expectation, of course, is that Yochai will quickly remarry. For Shira, her mother Rivka (Irit Sheleg) and father Aharon (Chayim Sharir) this could very well mean the loss of being able to be involved in the raising of newborn Mordecai since the only "offer" on the table for Yochai is with a longtime friend in Belgium who has also recently become widowed.
If Fill the Void were not set in the midst of an Orthodox community, one might believe this to be the perfect set-up for yet the latest rom-com. Heck, if Adam Sandler were involved in the project it could still be the perfect set-up.
First-time feature filmmaker Rama Burshtein hasn't created a rom-com, though she has infused the film with more life, vitality and spirit than one usually gets in this type of film. Rivka reaches the conclusion that there is only one choice - Shira should marry Yochai, a choice that would keep him within his current community and keep the family intact. Aharon is far more resistant to asking such a thing of Shira, whose heart has already been set upon another young man. Initially, Yochai is just as resistant partly due to the memories that such a union would create and partially because there appears to be an undefined yet obvious double-digit age difference between he and Shira.
Will she or won't she?
This becomes the central tension that guides the majority of the 90-minute Fill the Void. Will Shira choose faith and duty over her idealized sense of romance and excitement?
While Burshtein drags out this conflict just a tad too long, the conflict itself is an involving and emotionally resonant one mostly owing to the warm and sensitive and sweet performance from Hadas Yaron, a young actress with only two other credits to her name before landing the lead here and picking up a Best Actress prize at the Venice Film Festival. To her credit, Yaron leaves us wondering throughout a good majority of the film because she so convincingly portrays both the innocence and wonder of her character along with her character's undeniable commitment to her family and her strong sense of obligation.
To Burshtein's credit, no one here is portrayed as a "bad guy." While Klein's Yochai has an early scene that lets us know he's not exactly good at saying "I love you," it also becomes clear early on that he's a good man in a bad situation who is in many ways just as vulnerable as Esther's family. Irit Sheleg's Rivka, while portrayed honestly as a woman whose self-interests may be tainting her decision-making, is also not put into a bad light but rather in a genuinely human one. Rivka clearly loves her family even amidst her questionable decisions. While one could argue that greater tensions could have been put on display, this approach feels more authentic given the dynamics of the community.
Then, there is that community that is brought so simply yet beautifully to life by Burshtein. While most films that center around the Orthodox Hasidic Jewish community have strived to capture that insular yet vibrant sense of community, few films have managed to do so with a sense of reverence and respect for the love that exists within the traditions. It's certainly possible to question the concept of arranged matches in this day and age, yet Burshtein does what she can to paint a portrait of a community where their lives are so interwoven that such a tradition still makes sense. While Burshtein does offer up that sense of reverence and communal commitment, she doesn't idealize the community and isn't afraid to show the more business aspects of Purim, the holiday on which Ester dies, and the more competitive aspects that exist within the community even to the point of marriage itself. We become involved in the life of Frieda (Hila Feldman), an older unwed cousin of Shira's who is approaching that age where child-bearing becomes less likely, while Shira also is extremely close and supported by an aunt with a disability (Razia Israeli) who has never married.
D.P. Asaf Sudri mostly utilizes wide lensing that does wonders in defining the communal relationships without compromising the film's more intimate moments. Music is also utilized well within the film including rock music in one particularly powerful scene and Yitzhak Azulay's original music that incorporates both religious music and remarkably moving accordion music courtesy of one of Shira's main ways of dealing with life.
Fill the Void has been picked up by Sony Classics for an indie/arthouse distribution in the United States that is currently going on. The film was released in New York and L.A. on May 24th and is due to arrive in Indianapolis on July 12th.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic