Films tend to confirm, not confront, stereotypes. Not so Israeli director Rama Burshtein’s exquisitely acted, radiantly shot, and delicately nuanced “Fill the Void,” a melodrama set in the ultra-Orthodox Haredi Jewish community of Tel Aviv. By bringing to life complex and sympathetic characters in a precisely observed setting and social framework, and by presenting that isolated world as a microcosm, Burshtein has achieved a gripping film without victims or villains, an ambiguous tragedy drawing on universal themes of love and loss, self-sacrifice and self-preservation.
First comes love. In a supermarket, 18-year-old Shira (Hadas Yaron), attended by her mother, Rivka (Irit Sheleg), spies on the young man whom she has to marry. Contrary to expectations, she’s totally smitten. But then in the middle of a robust Purim celebration, Shira’s older sister Esther (Renana Raz) dies in childbirth.
Complicating the family’s grief is the status of Esther’s child. Her husband, Yochai (Yiftach Klein), has arranged to marry a woman in Belgium, where he plans to relocate, taking the baby with him. Having lost her daughter, Rivka will not suffer the loss of her grandchild. She proposes a radical alternative: Shira will marry Yochai.
At first no one likes the idea. Shira’s father, the Rabbi Aharon (Chayim Sharir), has qualms about the prospect. Frieda (Hila Feldman), the 30-something always-a-bridesmaid-never-a-bride, feels like she should have a shot at Yochai. The strongest objections come from Shira’s Aunt Hanna (Razia Israeli). She encourages her niece’s apparent wish to be independent and free. She herself has never married, but, in a stunning cut, it is revealed why; the sleeves of her dress are empty — she has no arms, and consequently, never had any suitors.
Shira is also conflicted. She wants to please her mother and see that the child is raised properly, but can’t bring herself to committing. Is she still in love with the man she was previously matched with? Is she not attracted to Yochai, the best-looking guy in the movie? Meanwhile, Yochai hasn’t exactly warmed to her. But more compelling than those reasons is something else, deep and powerful and not yet articulated.
Burshtein relates this complex and subtle predicament with suggestive precision. Employing artful ellipses, she lets time pass unremarked until oblique details reveal things have changed — for example, in one moment Esther’s son is an infant, in the next he’s a toddler. Each scene evokes the depths and complexities of the Haredic world. The Purim celebration, compared by some to the wedding sequence in “The Godfather,” offers little epiphanies about the lives and relationships of the whole community. Exterior scenes sparkle with color and vibrancy, and the interiors radiate warmth and security; but the close-ups of the characters’ faces, anxious and conflicted, contradict these appearances.
So why is Shira balking? Cornered by Yochai, Shira says she won’t marry him because she’s afraid of death. It’s a jarring admission, but not surprising. She’s seen her sister die from giving birth, and when she finds herself alone confronting the consequences of her choice, her terror suggests that she recognizes the mortal cycle into which she has been initiated — the void that no human arrangements can fill.