Jane Austen with Rabbis
An 18-year-old girl in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in Israel wavers about marrying a man when her sister dies and leaves him a widower in this film made in part for television. This will be an intensive introduction to its unusual community for some viewers; at the same time, the claustrophobic, slightly romanticized and simplified account, shot with closeups and soft focus, goes into little depth except about its one topic. There’s none of the boldness and excitement of Haim Tabakman’s 2009 Eyes Wide Open, a powerful movie set in Jerusalem about a married ultra-Orthodox butcher who falls in love with a handsome young man — or Holy Rollers (2010) a film based on fact in which Jesse Eisenberg plays a New York ultra-Orthodox Jewish youth who becomes a drug mule. Fill the Void feels like a publicity film for Jewish Orthodoxy, if an odd one. Along with the soft focus, and the handsome lead couple, there is pretty music, notably a sweet choral setting for the lines beginning “If I forget you, O Jerusalem,” which is played no less than three times.
A whole lot of davening — the Jewish swaying to accompany relligious recitation — goes on in Fill the Void. Women daven when just sitting taling. Shira (Hadas Yaron), the eventual bride, davens even when she sits in her white gown waiting to be married. Before the davening, Shira does a lot of wavering. Unlike the heroine of a Jane Austen novel, which arguably considers the same series of false starts and reconsiderations before a young woman joins with a young man, this movie has a very slow intensity, but lacks subtlety or complexity, as well as a larger social context of status or work. These people appear prosperous, to judge by their clothes and their well-appointed kitchens and the prospective groom’s nice Volvo. What doee he do? As we see them, these are people who only marry, have babies, and meet with their religious leaders. In the end, it becomes clear that people of the Haredim or ultra-Orthodox community lives in a less advanced and democratic world than that of Jane Aussten’s Hampshire in the early nineteenth century. And yet according to Jay Weissberg’s Variety review written at Venice, Austen is Burstein’s “stated influence.”
But if Fill the Void is essentially shallow, and its simplicities and shallow focus imagery mark it as best suitefd for TV, even as a promotional film, it is a gorgeous, almost spiritually mesmerizing kind of film too. Its problem is that it’s an insider’s view of a community whose values and approaches (particularly its sense that a woman’s goal in life is to marry and have children) are hard for modern viewers to sympathize with.
In the story, Shira is one of three daughters of the prosperous Rabbi Aharon (Chaim Sharir). Her sister Esther (Renana Raz) dies in childbirth leaving a baby, Mordechai, and her husband, Yochay (Yiftach Klein), in need of a new wife to care for the child. Indeed Shira does function like a Jane Austen heroine, in the sense that she is headstrong and resists the urging of her mother Rifka (Irit Sheleg) to agree to marry Yochay, who at first resists himself, then is taken with the young and pretty Shira, and humiliated when she lets him declare his attraction and then says she isn’t interested and wants a marriage of virgin with virgin, as Yochay had with Esther. When other things don’t work out, and the older sister Yocay isn’t interested in finds a husband, Shira reverses her position, but not before she has been repeatedly stubborn with everyone on the issue. It is like Jane Austen, and it isn’t: the final decision seems en emotional giving in to pressure, to “fill the void,” rather than something that happens through growing up and learning moral lessons.
The fact is, as Weissberg notes, that despite the accomplishment of this film, its bias toward an extreme religous sub-group will be off-putting for many. However while the director is ultra-Orthodox, the actors are secular. Fill the Void debuted at Venice, and was shown at Toronto, where Mike D’Angelo gave it a disapproving 43 (I’m tempted to agree), with the Tweet review: “41. Like watching a film about freed slaves who opt to remain on the plantation for the good of the white family.” I think he means Shira frees herself, by refusing Yochay initially, and her reversal and decision to marry him is like opting “to remain on the plantation for the good of the white family.” I do not fully understand Hebrew, but my ability to follow it with the help of subtitles made me wonder if the dialogue here had much complexity. Notable is the repetition of the verbally identical formulas at all key moments in people’s lives, and the very simple sentence structure of the dialogue. Jane Austen, with her wit and irony, this is absolutely not. Despite the richness of Jewish humor, this community as shown is not one favoring subtlety. Which is okay; but how primitive can you be in Tel Aviv (where this is set)?
Screened for this review as part of the main slate of the 50th (2012) New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center, October 2012.
Director: Rama Burshtein
Writer: Rama Burshtein
Stars: Hila Feldman, Razia Israeli, Yiftach Klein
Runtime: 90 min