Rama Burshtein's Fill the Void opens on green leaves, smiling faces, lush billows of fabric that when pieced together, the sensuous images accumulating into a fuller picture, become a wedding dress, tulle and silk diffusing the glow. Engagements, weddings, births, and deaths: This film is a more traditional kind of marriage plot than you might expect in 2013, and Burshtein has cited Jane Austen as a major influence. Even within the sometimes intimate, sometimes suffocatingly close Hasidic Jewish community of Tel Aviv, where these events take place, love is not easy. And from the dense, textured carpet of her characters' emotions, Burshtein draws gorgeous threads and holds them to the light.
The film centers around 18-year-old Shira (Hadas Yaron), who is about to be engaged when her older sister, Esther (Renana Raz), dies in childbirth. Esther leaves behind a tiny son and a grieving husband, Yochay (Yiftach Klein). Shira's mother (Irit Sheleg) is unwilling to lose a grandchild to Yochay's inevitable remarriage, so she devises a plan to wed Shira to Yochay. A fumbling courtship follows, and with it, the film's few intimations of life beyond these homes: a walk down Rothschild Boulevard, the modest dress of the Haredim conspicuous in worldly surroundings; Yochay picking Esther up from a bus stop rather than letting her ride unescorted.
The Hasidic community is never shown interacting with society at large, only moving through it out of necessity. And that insularity — the void — results in deep psychic pain for the people trapped within its rigid structure, even as that structure supports them. Singularly unhappy is Frieda (Hila Feldman), the late Esther's best friend, a woman for whom the community has no place. In the Hasidic world, the fact that she is unwed and in her mid-twenties makes her a non-entity.
Burshtein herself is both of and separate from the world she chronicles, as are the actors. Burshtein came to Orthodox Judaism in adulthood, while her secular actors adopted it only for the duration of the film. This perspective on all sides — this double vision, the closing of the void between reality and fiction, makes Shira's world feel rich and whole.
Although Shira is technically of marriageable age, her painful, tightly wound interactions with Yochay make clear that she's still a child, unable to articulate what she wants or make herself vulnerable to him, while a weary Yochay desires only to be wanted and cared for in return. He cannot play games anymore. What follows is an unspooling in tight portrait shots, light and darkness shading in the conversational hollows. Burshtein's lush visual sensibility, and the subtle performances of the excellent cast, create an aching portrayal of longing and interdependence that transcends the boundaries of the family's small world.
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