Fill the Void: Marriage Among the Ultra-Orthodox

Fill the Void

Opens Fri., June 21 at Seven Gables. Rated PG. 90 minutes.

Much of Fill the Void plays out in warmly lit close-ups against backgrounds soft and fuzzy. The style conveys the intimacy of the situation, but also the isolated, unto-itself world where the movie takes place: a strict Orthodox sect in present-day Tel Aviv. The rules of behavior within this community are old, inflexible, and ruled by men. For filmmaker Rama Burshtein—herself a member of Israel’s Haredi community—the film’s achievement is to suggest, with great delicacy, how an 18-year-old woman might carve out a tiny space for the unlikely possibility of getting what she wants. Sort of.

That doesn’t come across as a triumph, but it is an evocatively rendered process. The 18-year-old is Shira (the excellent Hadas Yaron), who modestly hopes for a satisfactory arranged marriage to an awkward but likable boy her age. Disaster strikes as her older sister dies in childbirth, leaving behind a grieving husband (Yiftach Klein) and a baby. Custom demands he remarry soon, and Shira becomes a candidate—not so much because she or the new widower desire it, but because Shira’s mother (Irit Sheleg) can’t allow the family to break up.

These practical maneuvers are as ritualized as an ancient religious ceremony or a Jane Austen plot, and they are fascinating and sometimes devastating to watch. The small facets of this world are flavorful—for example, a rabbi doling out wads of U.S. dollars to the faithful as a way of tiding them over a financial rough patch. If an outsider were giving us this story, it might play more as criticism, but Burshtein’s calm hand is showing us this community rather than telling us what to think about it. This complicates our connection to Shira. It would be easy to feel outrage if the film were condemning this antiquated system (the terrific 2001 Israeli film Late Marriage comes closer to that tone), but Shira gains layers of complexity because she isn’t trying to rebel against the arrangement. Instead, she’s truly concerned about what’s best for her family, her faith, and herself.

Of course, you may choose to feel outraged anyway, an understandable reaction. Fill the Void carries a glowing vibrancy while you’re watching it—those burnished close-ups do create an effect—but something troubling lingers in the aftermath.

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