Sunday, June 23, 2013

Fill the Void – Movie Review

Fill the Void is an Israeli film written and directed by Rama Burshtein.  The film takes place in a Hasidic ultra-orthodox Jewish enclave in Tel Aviv.  Rama Burshtein herself grew up in a non-orthodox home in the United States and as an adult became religious and joined the ultra-orthodox community in Israel.  This is her first film for general audiences.

The film tells the story of a family in the Hasidic enclave.  Their lives are dominated by religion and tradition.  Outside of immediate family, men and women have little or no contact. The older sister Esther is married to the handsome Yochay.  The younger sister Shira has just turned 18 and is on the verge of being engaged to a young man she has not yet spoken to.  Esther is in her ninth month of pregnancy.  A tragedy occurs; Esther dies in childbirth but her son Mordechay survives.  Shortly after Esther’s death, Yochay is considering accepting a marriage proposal which would involve his moving to Belgium to marry a widow with two small children.  Shira’s mother Rivka is devastated at the thought of losing contact with her grandson, Mordechay.  To solve the problem Rivka maneuvers to make a match between Yochay and Shira.  Yochay agrees but Shira is aghast at the thought of marrying her dead sister’s husband.

Shira dreams of a romantic marriage to a young groom.  However, gradually her dreams are confronted by the reality of the community that she lives in.   The family of the young man she was to be engaged to withdraws the offer.  Her handicapped (armless) Aunt Hanna tells her that she never married after having turned down a match early in her life.  One young woman is married off to a middle-aged widower; another is engaged to a young man she knows not at all and is having doubts about.  Shira meets a suitor who is so inappropriate that she can barely stop herself from breaking out in laughter.

There are no bad people in the movie.  The film-maker generally portrays the community as good people who care for each other.  The armless aunt is cared for by her family and is a full participant in family affairs.  Shira’s father hands out three thousand dollars to poor people who line up at his home on the festival of Purim.  The wise and kindly rabbi interrupts his deliberations to advise an insistent lonely old woman on what type of stove to buy.

Yet the movie in fact is a condemnation of the system in which young people’s most intimate life decisions are controlled by their families and the community. While a young man or woman can refuse a match, the external pressure is overwhelming. The young women in the movie (other than Shira) are portrayed as being excited about the prospect of getting married, but not about the specific men that they are marrying.

The word love is mentioned only once in the movie.  At the beginning of the movie, Yochay during the festival of Purim celebrations tells his wife Esther that he loves her.  Esther’s response is to dismissively tell him that he says that only when he is drunk on Purim.  When Esther collapses, other members of the family/community rush to retrieve her and call an ambulance. Yochay is seen watching, from a distance, the scene unfold.  He plays the role of an observer rather than the role of a loving husband rushing to his stricken wife’s side.

Yochay never tells Shira what she is waiting to hear - that he loves her; the best he can manage is to tell her that she is pretty.

Perhaps Fill the Void is a cry of distress now that filmmaker Burshtein’s own children are reaching marriageable age in the community that she has adopted and her family is now trapped in.  We, and probably she, will never know.

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