Cracking the celluloid ceiling, one day at a time.
Reading time: 1.5 minutes
Year of release: 2012 // Director: Rama Burshtein // Screenplay: Rama Burshtein // Starring: Hadas Yaron, Yiftach Klein, Irit Sheleg // Country: Israel
Set in present-day Tel Aviv, Fill the Void is a deeply intimate portrait of an ultra-Orthodox Jewish family. Directed by a woman who, herself, abides by the ancient Orthodox tradition, it is said to be the first ever film to depict this kind of life ‘from within’. Rama Burshtein’s first feature is a tender ode to her own community, but will also strike a chord with those living outside of it.
At the heart of the film is Shira (Hadas Yaron), a character teetering on the cusp of womanhood as her family plans a wedding to the man they have chosen for her. A sudden tragedy befalls them when Shira’s sister dies in childbirth, leaving behind a baby son and a grief-stricken husband, Yochay (Yiftach Klein). Desperate to prevent Yochay from taking her one grandchild abroad whilst he searches for a new spouse, Shira’s mother suggests he marry the remaining daughter. This suggestion distresses the rest of the family. How could Shira possibly be expected to fill the shoes of her dead sister?
The plot develops slowly, which isn’t to say that it ever becomes tedious. Every scene is enveloped in mysterious exoticism, as we observe a world nestled in the heart of a modern metropolis, yet cocooned away from mainstream culture. The camera remains tightly focused on Burshtein’s characters; non-members of the Hassidic world remain blurred against the backdrop of a street or supermarket. Our gaze falls more or less equally on men and women, their generational differences neutered by plain, old-fashioned clothing and equal dedication to a millennia-old, religious calling.
However, this is a woman’s story. Although men in the orthodox community play a more dominant role in various aspects of daily life, with women often left in the wings, the female characters in this film have a formidable presence. Their emotions flood the screen with the steady tides of joy and suffering. Conversations between women are masterfully gauged and Burshtein has a perfect command of the art of subtle touches. Not until half-way through the film do you realise that one character is severely disabled. The love and lack of fuss shown by the family as they care for her means that she appears completely ordinary until, almost by happenstance, one key shot reveals the truth. This is the hallmark of Burshtein’s storytelling: no signposts or loaded messages, just a simple tale made intricate by the strong personalities that inhabit it.
Rama Burshtein has said that Fill the Void was made, first and foremost, for her own community. Some of the most moving moments of this film must be doubly so for ultra-Orthodox Jews, as they watch even the most intimate aspects of their daily life reflected back at them. Exquisite, Hassidic song imbues the soundtrack. Moments of chemistry between Shira and Yochay are surely ones of intense, sexual tension for those people who refrain from touching members of the opposite sex unless they are married to them, or related by blood. Hadas Yaron was awarded the Coppa Volpi at Venice last year for her role as Shira. She gives a wonderfully mature performance and her acting in the film’s final minutes is breath-taking.
Occasionally, the tone of Fill the Void becomes a little muddled. Some scenes are cut too abruptly for their intended effect to sink in, and there are well-pitched moments of gentle comedy which could have been lengthened to achieve better balance. However, this does not detract from the film’s overwhelming power. The themes are utterly universal. Shira’s path is one well-trodden by countless women all over the world, as she makes the agonising choice between following her head or her heart. Yet, her circumstances are quite apart from other walks of life, and Burshtein’s beautiful depiction of this is sure to give audiences one of the most unique cinematic experiences of their lives.
Premièred in the USA on 9 October 2012 at the New York film festival
France cinematic release on 1 May 2013
UK cinematic release date not yet known