Fill the Void | Director Rama Burshtein | Score: 6.3
As far as strict class-regimented closed societies go, the 18th century British upper-middle-class of Jane Austen’s England have nothing on the ultra-Orthodox Jewish clans of the modern era.
For them, marriages aren’t any kind of freewheeling love celebrations between a couple of crazy kids, rather they are precisely orchestrated and meticulously planned unassailable events decided upon between two families who think they have their children’s best interest at heart, even as they may ignore their wishes. With thousands of years of history behind them, they’re match-making with a battering ram instead of a rose.
Consider the plight of Shira (Hadas Yaron), a pretty and mostly docile young woman on the cusp of finding out with whom her parents determine she’ll spending the rest of her days. When we first see her and her mother, Rivka (Irit Sheleg), they are huddled together in their local Tel Aviv grocery store, surreptitiously eyeing the young man they think she’ll be marrying. Shortly thereafter, however, fate intervenes: Shira’s older sister, Esther (Renana Raz), married to a kind and gentle man named Yochay (Yiftach Klein), suddenly falls unconscious on the eve of giving birth to their first child.
The child is saved, but the mother dies, leaving a gaping hole in the family and Yochay without a wife to help him care for the young infant. Rather than see him move away — taking her only grandchild with him — Rivka hatches a scheme to have him quickly marry Shira, to the consternation of both her daughter and her husband, the rabbi Aharon (Chayim Sharir). What follows, then, is a thoughtful drama of manners and desires, though the film never makes it easy on its characters, with Shira feeling the immense pressure placed unfairly on her shoulders by her resolute mother, trying to determine what, if anything, she actually feels for her former brother-in-law.
The film, from director Rama Burshtein, has the soft-focus glow and slightly over-exposed sheen of a fairy tale, only Burshstein’s would-be princess has an awful lot of vicissitudes to work her way cautiously through before making any kind of decision.
In the film’s best scene, Shira meets with Yochay to discuss the possibility of their betroval, only she ends up trying to re-direct his interest to another woman, Freida (Hila Feldman), perpetually the sect’s old maid, who had claimed to her earlier in the day it was what her sister would have wanted. His pride mortally wounded, Yochay storms out of their meeting, leaving Shira even more bereft and confused than before.
As the romantic foils, Yaron and Klein have an engaging chemistry, tender but tentative, and laced with the knowledge that its truly not what either one of them would have chosen, left to their own devices. Yochay, because he deeply loved his first wife; Shira, because the whole idea of marrying her former brother-in-law feels disrespectful to her sister’s memory. It’s a choice she desperately doesn’t want to have to make.
Which is most of the point: In this society, one steeped in male dominance and female subservience, for a young woman to actually carve out the space to make a decision of her own, is something of an anomaly. We follow Shira’s various emotional stages, and watch her get buffeted endlessly about by forces she has absolutely no control over. Because of this — much like Austen’s Emma Woodhouse or Marianne Dashwood — the choice she ultimately makes is far less important than the fact that she actually gets to make one in the first place.
Piers Marchant is a Philly-based writer and editor, and the EIC (and film critic) for two.one.five magazine (215mag.com). His reviews can be found on 215mag.com and his tumblr blog, Sweet Smell of Success. You can also follow him on twitter @kafkaesque83.
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