After a Cannes Film Festival which attracted criticism for including no female directors whatsoever, new Venice Film Festival head Alberto Barbera seems to be having bit of a dig at his Gallic rivals with his first year in charge. In the official selection alone, there are four female directors or co-directors, and plenty more in the various sidebars. Perhaps most notably are some from the Middle East. “Wadjda” is the first film ever made in Saudi Arabia, and that it’s made by a female director, Haifaa Al Mansour, in a country not known for its love of women in positions of power is rather extraordinary (word is the film’s pretty good too: unfortunately, other commitments kept us from seeing it here, but we plan to catch up elsewhere).
And very differently, there’s “Fill The Void,” or “Lemale Et Ha’Chalalal,” the first film from New York-born filmmaker Rama Burshtein, who is a member of the Orthodox Jewish community in Israel. Burshtein has devoted most of the last 20 years teaching and making film in that world, but here makes her international feature debut with a curious comedy-drama that has its strengths, but ultimately proves somewhat disappointing.
In Tel Aviv in the present day, Shira (Hadas Yaron), daughter of rabbi Aharon (Chaim Sharir) has just turned eighteen, and is in the earliest stages of being matched with a man that if all goes well, she’ll be married to (although she hasn’t met him yet). Her older sister Esther (Ranana Raz), has been married to Yochay (Yiftach Klein) for a few years, and is about to give birth to her first child. Tragically, however, she dies in childbirth, leaving a distraught Yochay to care for the baby alone.
There’s pressure from the community for him to remarry soon, and soon a potential match emerges, a widow with two children of her own, who lives in Belgium. Fearing the prospect of her grandchild being moved away, Esther’s mother Ritka (Irit Sheleg) suggests that he marries Shira instead…
It’s essentially a sort of Jane Austen-ish marriage plot – will Shira give into the wishes of her family and marry Yochay, who’s warming up to the idea? Or will she let her brother-in-law take her nephew to Belgium so she can find a more suitable match, closer to her own age, as her independently-minded great-aunt Hanna advocates? And at least at the start, the film is quite promising.
As you might expect, Burshtein has a real eye for the world and its rituals, allowing the camera to see things that can’t have been seen by too many outsiders. There’s a real warmth and humanity to the characters established in the early stages, from Shira gossiping about her prospective match, to her father giving out money to those with troubles at Purim (his relationship with local widower Mr. Shtrecher (Michael David Weigl) is a particularly touching one). And across the film, the characters are well drawn and complex, be it Yochay, who sneaks out for cigarettes every so often, or Ritka, whose ambivalence about what she asks her daughter to do subtly shines through.
It’s a shame, then, that the film the characters are given isn’t quite so successful. Tonally, the film awkwardly straddles light fluffy comedy and grief-stricken melodrama, hopping from one mode to other from scene to scene. The comedy is often charming, and far more successful than the more sombre, slightly inelegantly-written melodrama, but it’s the way the two butt together that really sinks the picture – the laughs come at the expense of the stakes of the drama, and the more serious moments makes it tougher to laugh at the comedy.
Technically, too, Burshtein has a lot of room for improvement. The whole film is shot (on what looks like RED cameras) with a sickly, overlit soft-focus sheen that makes it look like a dream sequence in a Lifetime movie, and while some of her shot compositions are strong, it starts to become borderline unwatchable. The film’s also scored by curious, barbershop/a capella versions of traditional Jewish prayers, which are bouncy enough, but also manage to undermine the drama fairly successfully.
The inherent contradictions in the film’s sheer existence are kind of interesting – Burshtein writes in her director’s statement that “Love and relationships form the main object of my interests. To be honest, careerism, independence, and self-fulfillment are less important to me than love, my husband and my family,” and without giving it away too much, that’s something that’s reflected in her film itself. It rankled at first, but there’s certainly a kind of courage in the way the film unabashedly follows this argument, even if we wouldn’t advocate it ourselves. But even that makes the film qualify only a curio – for the most part, the filmmaking isn’t good enough to elevate it into anything more. [C-]