In a scene near the end of Fill the Void, the astonishing debut film by Israeli director Rama Burshtein, three of the film’s central characters are sitting in the office of a rabbi to seek his advice on a matrimonial concern. The office’s receptionist interrupts their conversation at a critical point to announce that an elderly woman is in urgent need of meeting the rabbi. The rabbi turns the request down, but before the conversation can be resumed proper again, the receptionist comes back with the impatient woman in tow. The emergency matter at hand is revealed to be the woman’s desire to purchase a new oven for her kitchen and she needs the rabbi’s seal of approval on a model that will allow her to cook Kosher.
The whole divergence is seemingly unrelated to the main thread of the narrative but it is in fact the most telling sequence in the film. If by this point, the extent to which religion influences the everyday life of this Haredi Jewish community is not clear, this minor interaction removes any lingering doubts. There are several earlier indications of the penetrating presence of faith in their collective psyche but here’s where everything really clicks. In this community, there are no decisions to be made without consulting the word of God. Marriage, the focus of the plot in Fill the Void, is no exception.
Shira Mendelman (Hadas Yaron) is an eighteen year old girl who is arranged to be married to the son of the Miller family. Her older sister, Esther, is pregnant with the son of Yochay, her husband. Everything is going well for the family, until Esther falls victim to the complications of her pregnancy, leaving Mordechai, her newborn son, with the widowed Yochay. The Millers, ostensibly unrelated to this accident, call off their son’s engagement to Shira and the Mendelman family is left grieving on all fronts. Yet, neither the death nor the broken promises are the biggest personal struggle Shira has to deal with; the main threat is her mother. Faced with the possibility of Yochay’s marriage to a woman in Belgium and categorically unwilling to let her grandson leave the family nucleus, the gently stern mother presents a solution: Shira can fill her sister’s shoes and marry Yochay.
This conundrum will seem utterly absurd to the secular viewer and one might assume that Shira’s only possible reaction is to stand firmly against her mother’s ghastly proposal. But this perpetually challenging film takes a different route. One of the many strengths of Burshtein’s film is her measured, non-judgmental approach to religiosity — something that allows the audience to gradually enter the same mental frame as Shira and Yochay and look at their world through their own eyes. Void remains even-handed in its assessment of religious thinking and nowhere is this as clear as in the distinctions it makes between its female characters and their different worldviews.
In an early sequence, for instance, Frieda, a single woman in the extended family is asked by an elderly family member “how come no one chose a diamond like you?” The question comes with a markedly regretful tone and the audience can practically see Frieda’s heart shattering in her eyes. Frieda is put in her traditionally secondary position as the inferior gender, as if her only function is to be chosen. Yet, although the film doesn’t go as far as condemning such backward thinking, it patiently contrasts Frieda’s fate with a younger girl who seems determined to design her own life. Whether one ideologically agrees with her eventual decision or not is beside the point. Burshtein, by all accounts coming at this story from a very personal place, clearly believes that one need not deviate from her own faith to challenge its preconceived mandates.
One interesting question naturally arises: how free can one be under such imposing religious upbringing? It’s a question that the film doesn’t want to answer but it doesn’t shy away from posing it to the audience. Aiding Burshtein in mapping out this dilemma between fate and faith on the one hand and individuality on the other is Hadas Yaron’s monumental work as Shira. Her performance is poised and graceful. She is guilt-ridden and composed, childish and mature, and faithful and doubtful often within the same frame, as in the film’s staggering final scene. Equally impressive is Yiftach Klein, whose Yochay keeps the audience on the fence between disdainful cringing and absolute sympathy.
Burshtein’s expositions heighten the sense of duality that exists within these two characters and consequently, in the audience’s reaction to them. Her screenplay alternates between sequences wherein we are withheld information that Shira is privy to and others where the exact opposite happens. In the case of the former, the audience becomes restless as they are dragged into Shira’s nervous, wavering internal struggle. In the case of the latter, her sense of being left out of the decision making process about her own future is intensified. What remains consistent throughout the whole ordeal is the cerebral vision and assured hand of the director behind the camera, navigating the turbulent waters of this tricky story with a keen eye and confident control over her multifaceted narrative. There have been plenty of films about teenagers challenging traditionally defined social norms; few are as precise, personal and captivating as this one.