Now here’s something you don’t see every (or any) weekend at the movie theater: a film about life under an ultra-conservative religion (Orthodox Judaism), made by an adherent of said religion (first-time writer/director Rama Burshtein). Filmmaking is so heavily dominated by the secular left that even the most seemingly objective portrayals of these socially antiquated institutions—this year’s “Beyond the Hills,” about an Eastern Orthodox convent, for instance—contain some level of implicit criticism. But Burshtein, as an insider, is able to make a film without political baggage, an intimate view of an 18-year-old woman’s experience as an Orthodox Jew in Tel Aviv.
On the same token, Burshtein never glamorizes her belief-system—rest assured, “Fill the Void” is not the “Fireproof” of Orthodox Judaism—instead depicting its influence on the protagonist’s life with honesty. Further, this is not a story about religion so much as it is a story about a young woman deeply influenced by religion. Shira (the luminous Hadas Yaron) is set to marry a man her age—her community practices what are essentially arranged marriages with consent—until her older sister’s death during childbirth (the baby survives) leaves her in a tight spot. To stop her brother-in-law Yochay (Yiftach Klein) from leaving Tel Aviv to marry a childhood friend who now lives in Belgium, taking the newborn with him, Shira’s mother (Irit Sheleg) urges Shira to fill her sister’s shoes. It’s a clever fix, but one that thrusts Shira into a personal crisis: Should she marry a man more than a decade her senior for the benefit of her family, to whom she is much more tightly tied than a secular person her age is theirs, or resist the arrangement to fulfill the image of marriage she has had all her life?
That image is another part of Shira’s cultural upbringing: In the first scene of the film, she observes from a distance the young man who her community’s matchmaker recommends she marry, filled with joy that this will be her husband, no matter how dorky he may be. It’s a moment about which she has no doubt fantasized for some time, the key turning point that a girl’s life leads up to in this extremely old-fashioned creed. Thus, when Shira has to decide whether to pursue Yochay instead, she is granted a level of autonomy she has never before experienced. But the independence to make such a choice is hardly freeing; she loses something (her longtime vision of a fulfilled adulthood or her positive relationship with her mother) with each option. While Shira’s religion undeniably creates this predicament—what secular girl would even consider marrying either suitor?—it’s no more to blame for the predicament than her sister’s untimely death itself. As such, “Fill the Void” is really a universally human story, that of being forced to make an important decision one doesn’t deserve to be saddled with.
While I wish filmmaker Burshtein had focused a little bit more on the people who surround Shira, such as the girl’s unmarried aunt and her all-knowing rabbi, she gets the vast majority of the artistic particulars dead-on. Most importantly, she allows lead Yaron’s performance to breathe, with several moderately long takes (by 90 minute movie standards) focusing on the girl’s face to explore her internal dilemma. This rich sense of perspective is supplemented by the overall mise en scéne, with the camera often set up in places you wouldn’t expect, to provide insight into Shira’s emotional position within a room (the hierarchical dynamic of her culture is palpable). And another striking thing about the way the film is shot is its soft, often glowing texture, which feels like Burshtein and cinematographer Asaf Sudri’s direct rejection of the aesthetics of most films about orthodoxy, which use heavy grain and low light to emphasize the institutions’ purported oppressiveness.
Some Western viewers will leave “Fill the Void” feeling that Shira’s religion is draconian, unfair to women. This is a valid point-of-view, and they will have earned their right to it, as Burshtein’s film is an authentic portrayal of an Orthodox family, not a polemic from an outsider with an agenda. But I suspect that most will forget about the morality of organized religion and instead engage with the film’s human qualities of inner-conflict and aching. “Fill the Void” is not your typical coming-of-age film, but it sure is an exquisite one.