'Fill the Void' a stirring story of the heart

Published: Friday, Jul. 26, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 16TICKET

The story told by Rama Burshtein in "Fill the Void," her remarkable debut feature, has an almost classical simplicity.

Shira (Hadas Yaron), a young woman living in an ultra-Orthodox enclave in Tel Aviv, Israel, faces a choice not unlike those faced by the heroines of Jane Austen novels and Hollywood romantic comedies: Which man will she marry?

For Shira, this is an especially agonizing question, because it forces her to weigh the claims of family loyalty, religious duty and her own desires.

After a courtship conducted according to the rules of her community – in which marriages are not precisely arranged, but brokered and facilitated by parents and professional matchmakers – Shira is engaged to a soft-spoken, ginger-bearded fellow.

Her happiness is quickly overshadowed by the death of her beloved older sister, Esther (Renana Raz), who leaves behind a newborn son and a husband, Yochay (Yiftach Klein). As the family struggles with grief, the possibility begins to emerge that Yochay might marry Shira.

Nobody suggests that this is a perfect or even a comfortable solution, but it offers some practical and emotional advantages, especially to Shira's mother (Irit Sheleg), who can't bear the thought that Yochay might leave Israel with her only grandchild. But though Shira and her brother-in-law get along reasonably well, the idea that she could replace Esther shocks her conscience and her sense of propriety.

Burshtein emphasizes both the loneliness of her heroine's predicament and its implications for those closest to her. Shira's parents are patient and compassionate, and there is no shortage of advice from friends, family members and other interested parties.

What the film makes clear, with unfailing sensitivity and wry humor, is that for Shira and her family the ordinary arrangements of living are freighted with moral and spiritual significance. Their routines are dominated by prayer, ritual observance and obedience to Jewish law, but their world does not seem narrow and austere. On the contrary, it is at times almost unbearably full of feeling and significance.

"Fill the Void" has been described as the first feature film directed by an Orthodox Israeli woman, and it is one of a small handful of modern movies that depict religious devotion from within. Characters in black hats and head coverings are not uncommon in Israeli cinema, but they tend to be viewed, by secular filmmakers, with curiosity or condescension, or as symbols of a social problem.

Burshtein illuminates Shira's world from within, a description that could also be applied to Yaron's performance. Shira is modest and sensible, forthright with her opinions and discreet about expressing emotion, but the way Yaron composes her features – and the way she is lighted by Burshtein and the cinematographer, Asaf Sudry – seems to offer direct access to her soul.

She is surrounded by equally vivid, complicated characters, including her parents, her sharp-tongued Aunt Hanna (Razia Israeli) and the rabbi whose counsel is sought on matters grand and trivial. (In one scene he interrupts an urgent marriage-related discussion to advise an old woman who wants to buy a new stove.)

As Yochay, Klein is a gentle, brooding presence and also an intriguing, at times almost frightening enigma. How well does Shira know him? How much does she want to?

The deeper drama of "Fill the Void" has to do with her self-knowledge, and it is this – the sense we have of witnessing a young person figuring herself out in the most challenging circumstances – that makes the film accessible and thrilling. It is completely unexpected, and entirely believable.FILL THE VOID

1/2

Cast: Hadas Yaron, Yiftach Klein, Irit Sheleg, Renana Raz, Razia Israeli and Chaim Sharir

Director: Rama Burshtein

90 minutes

Rated PG (Mild thematic elements and brief smoking)

In Hebrew, with English subtitles MOVIE REVIEW

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Read more articles by A.O. Scott



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