By: Henry J. Fromage (Three Beers) –
Although it just hit U.S. theaters recently, Fill the Void already plenty of accolades to its name, from Venice to a thorough domination of the Ophirs, Israel’s Oscar equivalent, to just missing out on a Best Foreign Language Film nod.
Although, unfortunately it’s not a sequel to that crazy French movie
Set in the reclusive Hasidic community of Tel Aviv, Fill the Void tells the story of Shira (Hadas Yaron), a young woman about to enter an arranged marriage, but excited at the prospect. Her fate changes, however, when her older sister dies in childbirth, and in an attempt to keep her grandchild in Israel, her mother Rivka (Irit Sheleg) tries to angle her into a union with her late sister’s husband, Yochay (Yiftach Klein), even as her Aunt Hanna (Razia Israeli) counsels against it. Understandably reticent about this, Shira must weigh her own feelings against the greater good.
Bet you can’t guess what’s under Aunt Hanna’s hat (far right).
One review I saw of this called it an ethnographic film, and in a lot of ways it is, and its appeal derives from, exactly that. The world of Hasidic Jews is a very closed one, and it’s enthralling to see how it functions. The dress and hairstyling alone is a source of endless fascination, as is the interaction of the sexes, interesting in the way it both influences the plot and is accepted as life as normal. In one scene Yochay offers Shira a ride, and instead of sitting in the front seat next to him, she sits behind, like in a cab. Whether this has any plot significance I believe depends entirely on who the viewer is, a sentiment that is amplified by the ending of the film, which may either be satisfyingly conventional or intriguingly open-ended.
What makes this an interesting debate is that the director, Rama Burshtein, is herself a presumably happily married Hasidic Jewish woman. When I first imdb’d her, I was stunned to see that the director of such an assured, well-made film had exactly zero prior credits to her name. Well, that doesn’t quite tell the whole story- Burshstein’s been making films for years, but they’ve only been viewable by other women in her community. There’s no disputing the clear understanding of human nature and emotion on display here, or the deft camerawork and soft, heavenly lighting that suffuses the frame. But, the narrative intent is much more nebulous, and all the more engaging because of that fact.
Burshstein is an admitted Jane Austen fan, and it’s not hard to see a bit of Elizabeth Benet’s intelligence and strong will or Mr. Darcy’s sullen attractiveness in these characters, which supports the classical ending most members of Burshstein’s community and perhaps she herself would see. But why then that apprehensive last glance before cutting to black, or Shira’s character arc that seems to be turned on its head by her final decision? So, so intriguing…
Unfortunately, even at less than a buck thirty, this movie drags at times, perhaps because for all of the unfamiliarity of the setting, the plot is much the opposite. I never got the feeling that I didn’t know precisely where it was going, which really puts a damper on its dramatic stakes.
The production of the film is very nearly spotless… except for some of the music choices. One song in particular is used twice, and sounds like Hebrew Michael Bolton… which jerks you out of the film quicker than a jet fighter eject button.
No, that’s not Matisyahu, but wishing for his music instead is understandable
This is an excellently-acted, well-shot modern day Jane Austen tale set in the reclusive world of the Hasidic Jews, with plenty of narrative wiggle room to prompt some fascinating discussion afterwards.
Take a Drink: every time marriage is mentioned
Take a Drink: every time money changes hands
Take a Drink: anytime a character downs some Manischewitz
Take a Drink: anytime someone breaks into song
Do a Shot: when you realize what those scissors are for