Rating: PG (mild thematic elements, smoking)
Length: 90 minutes
Release Date: May 24, 2013
Directed by: Rama Burshtein
Stars: 3.5 out of 5
At the beginning of “Fill the Void,” young Shira (Hadas Yaron) has reached her milestone eighteenth birthday, which means she’s ready to marry. Her strict Hasidic Jewish family of course wants her to marry someone from their close-knit religious community, and choose a man with a bright future who Shira is happy with. What she didn’t bargain for is that a tragic turn of events would leave her future in jeopardy, with her parents wanting her to marry her brother-in-law instead.
Shira’s beloved sister Esther (Renana Raz) was happily married to Yochay (Yiftach Klein) with a baby on the way. With so much happiness in the family, nobody was prepared for Esther’s tragic death while giving birth to her child. While he’s initially grieving, the new widower decides to stay in the family home with his baby. However, he knows he has to make plans to eventually move out; since he is no longer married to anyone in the house, it wouldn’t be appropriate for him to stay past his appointed window of grief. The prospect of her new grandchild leaving the home has Shira’s mother Rivka (Irit Sheleg) on edge, so she hastily hatches a devious plan to keep Yochay and the new baby in the house.
She decides that since Shira is now old enough to marry, she can wed Yochay so he’ll then stay living in the family home. At first Shira resists because she is already promised to someone else who she is very happy with. Unfortunately, the matchmakers in the community decide to pair Yochay with a woman from Belgium, Rivka really puts the screws to Shira because she fears that if he moves to Belgium, she’ll never see her grandchild again. This forces Shira to reconsider her entire future and whether she would be happy or not in an arranged marriage to a man who once wedded her own sister. Some comical moments are interspersed with some very bittersweet scenes as Shira makes a decision that will change the entire course of her life, and that of several family members as well.
Screenwriter Rama Burshtein, who also directed the film, does a fantastic job of showing how insular the Hasidic community is in Tel Aviv without being judgmental about it. All the laws that guide the Hasidic families are presented to the audience without any spinning involved. That means each of the viewers must decide on their own how fair or not fair all these laws are. The addition of a little bit of dark comedy into the screenplay also helps create a touch of levity, giving the audience some respite from all the high drama that constantly surrounds Shira and her family.
Yaron is at the heart of the film, even if some of her costars are much more famous than she is in Israel. She’s a breakout star in “Fill the Void,” giving the audience a heroine they can really get behind. She’s a strong woman who wants to be happy but also wants to do the right thing by her family, two positions which are often at odds in the film. Yaron isn’t afraid to show Shira’s vulnerabilities and to make her indecisive, with her mind changing constantly leading up to the conclusion of the film. Her performance was so good she won the coveted Volpi Cup at the Venice International Film Festival in 2012, beating out some much more well-established actresses for the honor.
Burshtein draws from her experiences as a woman to write and direct the film, with the female characters being the obvious power holders in the community. Sure, the Rabbi and the men hold the money and make financial decisions, but the women make all the domestic decisions, including matchmaking. This means that with one swift decision, they can alter the destinies of men and woman alike, which gives them pretty much all the power. These women aren’t portrayed as one-dimensional characters; instead, Burshtein makes sure to flesh out all the female characters so they each have distinct personalities that help make the story better. This careful attention to detail is almost unheard of by first-time screenwriters and directors like Burshtein. The script and direction feel like the workings of a much more seasoned writer and director who also has a bigger budget. The fact she can draw so much from so little bodes well for her future in the film industry, and also for those who decide to see one of her future films.