Fill the Void (Rama Burshtein, 2012)
A fascinating look at love and marriage politics within the Hasidic community of Tel Aviv, Fill the Void, by first-time director Rama Burshtein, is a solid and assured bit of filmmaking, with universally fine performances from all of its actors. What starts in tragedy ends joyfully, sort of, and it is that very ambivalence towards the conventions of cinematic happy ends that lifts this story above the usual family drama/romantic dramedy fare. And while at first it might be tempting to see the movie, if one is not of the community which it portrays, as a bit of ethnographic filmmaking tacked on top of a story we have seen many times before – that of the rebellious young soul trapped in a strict traditional society – it is ultimately so much more than that. It is a tale of both great specificity and overarching universality. My friend Hollis calls it “Orthodox Gothic,” and I think that sums it up nicely.
We meet Shira – the unmarried 18-year-old younger daughter of an orthodox rabbi – as she and her mother are searching for her matched husband in a local supermarket, so that Shira can decide what she thinks. They see him, Shira likes what she sees, and we next find Shira greeting her very pregnant older sister on the street, happily confiding to her that she has found “the one.” With impressive economy, Burshtein, herself a member of the Hasidim, shows us how the loving members of the family interact with each other, setting the stage for their resilience and adaptation to the tragedy that will soon strike, as a sudden and completely unexpected death upends their world.
How Shira, relative newcomer Hadas Yaron, handles the new circumstances is the focus of the movie. And Yaron is more than up to shouldering this narrative burden. We believe that she is a naïve and scared teenager, but also that she has the wherewithal to understand what her best options may be. As that boy glimpsed in the supermarket disappears from her prospects, she finds herself adrift in a way never anticipated, yet does not completely collapse. She emerges wiser, if not much older, still scared, yet (probably) better off than she would have been. I love the last scene of the film, where she and her new husband find themselves alone, post-wedding, not sure what to do. Are they happy? Maybe. Is it good that they are together? Probably. Have they served their community? Most definitely. And so life goes on.
There were a few choices on the director’s part that annoyed me. She is enamored of shots where two people are in the frame (a “Two shot,” it’s called), yet only one is in focus. She never racks (or resolves) the focus on to the other person in the shot, as one would normally expect. The result is to keep our attention on the one subject in focus, and I understand why she would want to do this, but I found it so distracting that I was unable to pay attention to the conversation on the screen. Perhaps if Burshtein had used this device more sparingly, or for shorter durations, she could have achieved the same effect without the attendant distraction. I also didn’t like some of her musical choices. During the funeral/circumcision/bris montage, for example, I found the soundtrack a little overwhelming and unnecessary. But these are mere quibbles, as the film is overall quite beautiful and masterfully made.
There was an interesting brief interview with Burshtein this past week in Baltimore’s City Paper, which I recommend. I would read it after seeing the film, as there are a few plot spoilers in it. Enjoy the movie!