Rama Burshtein’s “Fill the Void,” Israel’s
official Oscar entry earlier this year, is set in the Haredi Orthodox Jewish
community in Tel Aviv. It focuses on one young woman’s turbulent experiences
with traditional matchmaking — a custom which, it should be noted, differs
from arranged marriage, and is abundantly foreign to many of us Westerners. Yet
Burshtein renders a portrait that is universal: of the necessity of choice, and
its connection to putting away childish things.
Everything’s going well for 18-year-old Shira (Hadas Yaron).
She’s been matched for marriage with a boy who sets butterflies aflutter in her
tummy, at least upon her first fleeting glance of him in the dairy section of
her local grocery store, and her sister, Esther, is pregnant with her first
child. But when the unthinkable happens and Esther dies during childbirth,
Shira is left at emotional — and social — loose ends. Shira and her family
take care of Esther’s infant son while Esther’s widower, the impassive Yohai (Yiftach Klein), decides whether to remarry. Meanwhile, Shira’s once-rosy marriage
prospects dry up, seemingly without explanation.
When it becomes apparent that Yohai’s most promising
remarriage option would entail him moving with the baby to Belgium, Esther’s
mother, Rivka, feels her grief is about to burst. First the loss of her
daughter, and then her grandson. In a moment of quick-thinking desperation, she
pitches the idea to Yohai of proposing to Shira. Yohai, Shira’s senior by
probably 15 years, is ambivalent and initially noncommittal. Shira, when
broached with the possibility, is stricken with guilt and extreme confusion.
Yet time and familial pressure have ways of making outlandish possibilities come
closer to reality, and Shira finds herself faced with the choice of either
marrying her dead sister’s husband or risking the irrevocable separation of her
One of the most startling, fascinating aspects of “Fill the
Void” is how it flies in the face of conventional Western trajectories of
romance. If a romantic coupling is not at first ideal (a tenet of most romantic
comedies), it eventually becomes so after Hollywood pixie dust is sprinkled on
it. Here, director Burshtein is unwilling to let Shira’s decision become
easier, even after she’s effectively made her decision. At a key moment in the
film, Shira tells Yohai that to say yes to his proposal would be to give up
her chance at first new love, and all
the excitement and uncertainty that brings.
As she flip-flops back and forth on what to do, to the
increasing aggravation of her parents and the downright misery of Yohai, who
we sense has hardly had a moment to register his grief for Esther, Shira
experiences the agony of being the sole person who holds everything in the
balance. Yaron, who won the Best Actress prize at last year’s Venice Film
Festival for “Fill the Void,” deftly communicates Shira’s predicament, where
the unbearable thought of breaking her parents’ hearts is equaled only by the
thought of breaking her own heart, slowly, if she enters into a marriage that
could make her unhappy.
Burshtein shows a remarkable formal consistency as a
first-time feature director, giving her actors and the shots in which she
frames them the time and space to communicate pain and lingering confusion. The
cinematography has the angelic, fuzzy lighting of a 1980s glamour photograph,
which funnily enough fits with the clothing and interior designs we see within
this Orthodox Jewish community. (We can
tell, however, from the use of cell phones, that this isn’t a period piece, or
at least not one that extends farther back than a decade ago.)
The use of soulful, even rapturous Hebrew music (set to the Psalm,
“If I forget thee, Jerusalem”), with the brightly smudged lighting of the
camera work, gives a dreamlike quality to “Fill the Void,” even though the
problems the characters deal with are bluntly real. This is what ultimately
leads me to believe that the film, for all the unhappiness it chronicles is
ultimately — and refreshingly — a romance as delicate and moving as any I’ve
seen on screen recently. At the heart of “Fill the Void” is the romance of
reality, of compromise, of difficult choice, and finally, of embarking on an
unknown journey to repair a family.
“Fill the Void” hits theaters in New York and Los Angeles on May 24, via Sony Pictures Classics.