A Conflicted Hasidic Woman With A Large Choice
The ultra-orthodox Jewish men in director Rama Burshtein’s Fill The Void have all of the social power in their Haredi community. They sing, pray, and after meeting with a matchmaker are assigned a young woman to marry. But we rarely hear any of their conversations in this insular familial Israeli drama. That’s because the film shares the same perspective as the women in the household, segregated by closed doors, pressured by relatives, culture, and religion to accept a husband.
Fill The Void is, through a certain lens, a modernist Jane Austen novel come to life in a small Jewish community. The same mother-daughter relationships, filled with guilt, secrets, and unconditional love, permeate throughout. Instead of currying a flirtatious remark at a ball, the maternal duty here is wandering a child through a supermarket for a glimpse at a prospective husband. In this community, engagement presses upon a mother’s mind, and marriage arrangements are discussed and then paid for after mutual counsel. Communication is a value held in second degree after a man’s looks and background.
The daughter in question, and subsequently peering around towards the deli, is Shira (Hadas Yaron), the youngest daughter of Rivka (Irit Sheleg) and Aharon (Chayim Sharir). She plans to be engaged to this man she stalks until her older sister Esther tragically loses her life during childbirth. Her death spawns life in the form of a son whose care rests in the hands of her now widowed husband Yochay (Yiftach Klein). The family is stricken with grief, but the future of this son becomes a pressing issue, one ultimately tethered to Shira and the possibility of a courtship with Yochay.
This idea spreads from her mother, fearing Yochay will leave for another woman as he has inferred, taking away her grandson in the process and any living memory of Esther. Shira’s caretaking of the child provokes in Rivka a spirited inclination to match the pair, even though Shira remains just eighteen years of age. The idea is naturally met with resistance from multiple parties. Shira feels disgrace thinking about taking her sister’s former husband and her father still desires that she choose the man on her own terms, not pressured by a familial burden. The weeks of mourning fizzle into conflicted stares, pensive silence, and reluctant decision-making.
Burhstein, in her directorial debut, captures her figures in gauzy close-up as if trying to pry open the instinctual feelings Shira and Yochay may hide. The two are amiable with each other but their forced conversations in private feel like efforts to make amends for bad deeds rather than attempts at fostering a potential marriage. The choice in Shira’s case is made more difficult through friends and family offering myriad advice, even harder at her second sister’s wedding when guests approach her saying “May you get married next.” Her consolation comes through her Aunt Hanna, an unmarried woman missing her arms and yet still wearing a headpiece signifying wedlock. She receives less questions that way she confesses. Shira realizes hers will only just begin.
Bargaining between deed and devotion is a delineation Shira ultimately feels is lost. But this trepidation for committal and proposed marriage is still up for adjudication by the local Rabbi, a man whose holiness decides matters both life-changing and touchingly trifling. In an isolated room, one of Shira’s courters asks her if she liked playing the accordion, an instrument she frequents at the daycare she helps run. “It was my grandmother’s,” she responds, indirectly answering the question while suggesting her dedication to the matriarch. Rivka’s presence meanwhile is both condescending and loving, carefully projecting a mother intent on keeping Esther alive without killing her other daughter’s future.
I couldn’t remember a film so engaging, and even suspenseful, while being so quiet and dormant. The household, when the black-hatted males chanting prayers and eating cease, leaves an empty space that’s filled by the gender-separated tension. Spoken sentences are ended with pauses that signify an emotion, and then after a few seconds of silence, take on new meaning. We cannot hear the male discussions, but we can feel them through Shira’s changing features, continuously tempted to lean in and bridge the gap of mumbles to their articulate emotive discussions.
Burhstein finds the connective tissue that allows access to this closed and conservative group of people. In a culture defined by tradition and its socially antiquated vision of gender roles, Fill The Void still garners a reverence and respect. Its ending serves this belief justice, reminding us of the deeply human elements of love and its various forms.