' ' Cinema Romantico: Fill the Void

Monday, January 27, 2014

Fill the Void

Shira (Hadas Yaron), an 18 year old Ultra-Orthodox Jew, has taken a meeting with a potential suitor. It is awkward like a first date and probing like a job interview, the two attempting to determine in a single sitting if the other is the one he/she wants to marry. When it times come for Shira to express her desire, she is blunt. She says she wants “a real home.” She says “I don’t want to lie.” This speaks not only to the true nature of Shira, but to the conundrum she faces, and the conundrum that it seems all the women in her strict Haredi Community in Tel Aviv face. Can you be true to yourself and true to your beliefs? Does one override the other, or are they one in the same?

Scheduled to marry a young man whom she has only seen and not conversed with, Shira nonetheless is pleased with this prospect. But tragedy strikes. Her older sister, Esther (Renana Raz), dies in childbirth. The baby boy, Mordechay, survives. Esther’s widowed husband, Yochay (Yiftach Klein), barely appears to have time to mourn before he entertains an offer to move to Belgium and re-marry to a childhood friend. This, of course, means Mordechay would go with him, and this pains Esther’s mother, Rivka (Irit Sheleg), who wants her daughter’s newborn close. Thus, Rivka makes a plea to Yochay – she asks if he will consider re-marrying Shira.

A man watches a movie and he is that man. I am an American and, of course, customs that dictate establishing actual contracts for marriage which require the approval of an all-knowing Rabbi and considering re-marrying your late wife’s own sister for the good of all are concepts with which I struggle in light of the way I was raised. Yet, the exquisite beauty of Rama Burshtein’s "Fill the Void", a 15 year project, winner of 7 Ophir Awards and Isarel's entrant for Best Foreign Language Oscar (it was not nominated), is how delicately it lays out the landscape of this specific world.

Religious devotion in movies can so often be employed for comedy, victim of heedless judgment, or it can be unabashed evangelism to sway non-believers. “Fill the Void” is none of these things. It’s not a peek behind the curtain, per se, which makes it sound suspicious and aloof, but an invitation to this culture. In fact, if the film suffers from anything, it is a near-suppression of the outside world and a focus on matrimony to the detriment of all else. Watching “Fill the Void” you would be hard-pressed to think Ultra-Orthodox Jews do anything other focus on family, and well, that’s actually kind of right. Perhaps they are not entirely insulated, but they do choose to sequester themselves.

It apparently took Burshtein upwards of a year to find the right actress to play Shira, and this is made obvious not merely on account of how good Yaron is, but how much she is required to convey. Adolescence is a mystifying time all on its own, but imagine having to consider a life-altering decision when you haven’t even genuinely grown into yourself. Shira, in essence, is being asked to mend the wound suffered by her whole family, which is a lot to take on at the age of 18. The script deals with it rationally, even as Shira struggles with the rationale, urged this way by her mother, urged another way by her slightly more free-spirited aunt. Yochay, meanwhile, seems nearly as tentative with the proposal as Shira, and yet remains adherent to his cultural beliefs. Ultimately Klein is Yaron's equal, subtly exhibiting the weight of theology.

And so the “Fill the Void”, which initially appears as an exploration of its title, becomes about how an individual can express herself by pledging belief to a group doctrine. I found it as difficult to embrace as I did easy to empathize, and in so many ways I think ninety minutes of emotional exploration boils down to its final awe-inspiring shot, the camera contemplating the trembling face of Yaron. She wants a real home. She doesn’t want to lie. Those are her beliefs, and in that instant she is unsure whether or not she still holds them to be true.

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