Tradition and duty are the themes of Fill the Void (2012), a tightly observed family drama and Rama Burshtein’s debut feature. Set in a Orthodox Jewish community in Tel Aviv, the film draws a sympathetic portrayal of a young girl Shira (Hadas Yaron) who must come to terms with the sudden death of her sister, Esther (Renana Raz) and the position it puts her in of potentially obeying the imperative of the title and taking her place as her brother-in-law’s new wife and step mother to her sister’s child. The business of marriage is mediated via a series of match makers and family members and yet below the surface complex emotions are bubbling and Shira’s dilemma is further complicated by her own family.
Fill the Void offers an intimate view of a religious community from within – Burshstein identifies herself as an Orthodox Jew – and the film closely attends to the struggles of family members on all sides who wish to adhere to their rules and observances as well as fulfil their owns needs and lives. The pressure on Shira comes from several directions, including her mother who cannot bear the idea of losing her grandchild if the now widowed Yochay (Yiftach Klein) is forced to emigrate to Belgium in order to find a wife; that it is Belgium as well seems particularly unattractive to Yochay. Shira’s own emotions are confused as she must struggle with her sense that the move is wrong, her guilt at supplanting her sister, for whom she still grieves, and the sense that perhaps she secretly might want it too much.
Burshstein tips her hand slightly throughout in making Shira’s other potential husband a nerdy looking young man compared to the smouldering quiet charisma of Yochay. For many, her film’s attraction will be in an almost anthropological portrayal of a hitherto unseen reality and Burshtein and her cinematographer Asaf Sudry focus their cameras on the closely observed details of life as well as Yaron’s face – which at times is glows with competing emotions. We are privy to the ceremonies and rituals of the Orthodox community as well as its moments of contemplation and prayer, but we also peek and eavesdrop on the gossip and banality – a spiritual leader also gives an old woman advice on a new stove – and the grief and love that must be contended with.
Taking place in well-kept apartments amidst meals and suppers, the setting is almost entirely indoors and there is a claustrophobia both physical and emotional, but it is an insularity that the characters themselves do not feel. This is an enclosed society, closely preoccupied with its own dramas and, in this case, utterly unaware of the broader political context or indeed the outside world. Yaron gives a wonderful lead performance as a girl trembling on the edge of the rest of her life. Far from powerless, but unused to power, she and she alone must make the fateful decision. The specific cultural context aside, in many ways Burshtein’s Fill the Void comes down to a story as old as Jane Austen and as new as the latest Hollywood rom-com: “Who should I marry?”
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