Fill The Void
When a young woman's older sister dies in childbirth and her brother-in-law considers moving abroad with the child to wed a childhood friend simply because she's been deemed a suitable match, family pressures come to bear. Will Shira (Hadas Yaron) marry her dead sister's husband, Yochai (Yiftach Klein), to keep the infant nearby and please her parents? And does she have feelings of her own for him either way?
"Fill the Void" (or "Lemale et ha'halal," in the original Hebrew) is set in Tel Aviv, among ultra-Orthodox Hasidic Jews. Their lives are steeped in religion and tradition; modernity seeps in (Shira has a job outside the community and her parents insist they are not pressuring her), but the question of family, and especially marriage, takes on a primacy that might strike American audiences as strange.
Again and again, the issue of a woman's worth apart from her role as a wife and mother seems to surface. Shira's cousin Frieda, older and still unwed, suffers deeply with the constant humiliation of not having been selected as a bride. When Frieda claims to Shira that her late sister Esther (Renana Raz) had confided the hope that Frieda would marry Yohai in the event of her death, Shira seems conscience-stricken. The claim seems doubtful, but to Shira, who is still young enough to have outsized romantic notions, it's enough to send her in retreat, even as Yohai grows more attracted to her.
Or is Shira only using Freida's claim as an excuse to avoid fulfilling her family's expectations? After all, marrying Yochai means giving up the experience of wedding someone her own age and then gaining life experience together with him. Then again, seeing her with the boys her own age, one gets the sense that Shira is a little out of their league: When one lethargic fellow declares he wants someone vivacious, like himself, it is to laugh (as a close Jewish friend is in the habit of saying). Even Shira smothers a grin.
Whatever the reason for her attempts to avoid marrying Yohai, they do take a toll; seeing her mother's distress at the idea of losing her infant grandson, Shira seems to experience regret. Or are her tears the result of her own desire for Yohai?
What's going on in Shira's head is never entirely clear, and even in moments when an answer seems to be at hand there are hints that there's more going on than she's willing to let on. At one crucial point, the camera catches a look of utter panic on her face; is she telling the truth to those who ask after her wishes, or is she attempting, as she says in one exchange, to bring matters to "everyone's satisfaction?"
This puzzle depends wholly on the audience trying to decipher the clues -- words, expressions -- that Shira allows to come to the surface. Such surface impressions form a great deal of the movie's approach and aesthetics; Asaf Sudri's beautiful filming frequently uses a shallow depth of field. Probe more than a centimeter deep into these pictures, and the focus yields. Even when everything is in focus, there's diffusion to the images, as though a smudge of Vaseline had been applied to the camera lens.
Writer-director Rama Burshtein exerts finesse and control over the film; in some ways, it's hard to believe this is her debut feature. Burshtein restricts the film's point of view, keeping almost all of the scenes interior and frequently settling the camera amongst the women of the family, where scenes frequently play out at a stately pace and the editing follows suit. Men, when they are glimpsed, are drinking, singing, imparting wisdom, or peeling money off of fat rolls to help out those community members in need. They hint at their suffering, but rarely let it be seen.
This is not a women's film, but it does seem to take their part. There's a question implicitly asked in almost every scene: In such a close-knit faith community, where issues of gender and sexuality are of communal, rather than individual, concern, what's an individual's true worth? Associated questions inevitably arise: Does being a man or a woman figure into the calculation? Do people have a right simply to be themselves, apart from also being the means to successive generations? And really, are we very happy unless we submerge and submit ourselves to communal will?
Burshtein isn't out to ply us with easy answers, but she is looking to make us stop and ask those questions like we mean it.