The initial tendency upon looking at Fill the Void, American-born Israeli Rama Burshtein's debut "secular" film, will be to file it as a curiosity in the cabinet of exotica, due to its geographical and cultural origin in the Middle East and, especially, in the usually very closed world of the ultra-orthodox Israeli Jews known as the haredim. Yet, the film's tale of the qualms and doubts raised by an arranged marriage could come from any of many age-old cultures in our world, whether Eastern or Western, Northern or Southern; and Mrs. Burshtein ultimately tells the story of a young girl forced to grown up faster than she'd like and to conform to an adult world she has not yet quite found her place in. In that sense, Fill the Void isn't so much about a specific religious community but about universal experiences.

     Mrs. Burshtein, who herself is part of the religious, ultra-orthodox community, does shatter pretty much the outside stereotypes, while smartly avoiding any exoticisation of its rituals and structures. Hers is neither a film strictly for the community, like her previous filmmaking experiences, nor a bowdlerisation for the others, but rather a universal story set in a specific context, to the point that the viewer soon forgets the otherness of the background to focus strictly on plot, event and characterisation.

     The "void" of the title is that left in the Mendelman family of Tel Aviv, after the eldest daughter dies in childbirth, leaving behind a baby boy and an inconsolable widower. In a leaf taken from the old Jewish matchmaker stereotypes, matriarch Rivka (Irit Sheleg), unwilling to let her son-in-low Yochay (Yiftach Klein) marry someone else and take away her grandson, schemes to marry the youngest daughter, Shira (Hadas Yaron), off to him. She has just turned 18, and her own engagement has conveniently been undone; her mother's proposal essentially asks her to become a surrogate for the dead Esther out of familiar convenience, something that at first everyone but Rivka resists out of a sense of doubt and propriety, though eventually everyone comes around to the possibility. Everyone, that is, except Shira herself, torn between what she sees as her duty to her family as a daughter and her desire, no matter how romantic, to be in control of her own life (or as much as the structure of her community allows, though there is never any doubt that women wield quite a lot of power here).

     Despite the serious questions being asked in the film, the balance needing to be struck between individual and society, duty and fulfillment, Fill the Void is a bright, diffuse film, crisply photographed in gorgeous soft-focus widescreen by Asaf Sudry. It's entirely necessary to understand that Shira is not being forced into this marriage out of punishment or spite, but out of a true desire to grant some comfort and solace, some closure to the pain Esther's death brought to the Mendelmans. She is loved and well-loved, and she is being asked to rise to a very unusual occasion. Mrs. Burshtein's kind, attentive handling, always emotionally balanced and minutely detailed, coaxes remarkable performances from her entire cast, but especially from Ms. Yaron, pitch-perfect in between adolescent petulance and grown-up seriousness. It's a perfectly judged performance in a surprisingly affecting film, a little hand-crafted gem about people dealing with life that deserves to be seen as more than just an exotic curiosity.

Cast: Hadas Yaron, Yiftach Klein, Irit Sheleg, Chaim Sharir
Director and writer: Rama Burshtein
Cinematography: Asaf Sudry  (colour, widescreen)
Music: Yitzhak Azulay
Art director: Ori Aminov
Costumes: Chani Gurewitz
Editor: Sharon Elovic
Producer: Assaf Amir (Norma Production)
Israel, 2012, 90 minutes

Screened: distributor advance DVD screener, Lisbon, August 23rd 2013


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