‘Fill the Void’ is compelling story of Haredi family

From left: Hadas Yaron, Renana Raz, Irit Sheleg and Razia Israeli in ‘Fill the Void.’  Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

By Cate Marquis, Special to the Jewish Light

When a young wife dies and leaves young children, an Orthodox family may look for someone to “fill the void” left by the loss of the mother. 

“Fill The Void” is a beautifully photographed, involving drama that takes us inside a Haredi family in Tel Aviv facing such a dilemma. The film debuted here at last month’s St. Louis Jewish Film Festival and is now returning for a theatrical run. 

As the film begins, 18-year-old Shira (Hadas Yaron) and her mother are at a grocery store, hoping to catch a glimpse of the promising young man who has been offered to her as a match. Young Shira is excited about her upcoming marriage, something she has dreamed of all her life. Meanwhile, her older sister Esther (Renana Raz) and her 30-year-old husband Yochay (Yiftach Klein) are awaiting the birth of their first child, due anytime now. 

It’s Purim, and the family is quietly observing the holiday, receiving visitors in their home, while non-Orthodox Israelis celebrate loudly outside in the streets. But tragedy strikes and Esther dies giving birth, leaving the family overwhelmed with grief and putting Shira’s proposed match on hold. As Shira and her mother help care for the baby, a match is suggested between Yochay and a widow in Belgium. Although Yochay feels it is too soon, Shira’s mother Rivka (Irit Sheleg) becomes panicked that he will take her only grandchild out of the country, and she suggests a match between Shira and Yochay. Shira is forced to chose between family duty and her treasured dreams of marriage to someone her own age.  

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While first-time director Rama Burshtein takes us inside a little-seen world and one rarely explored in film, the real strength here is how natural, normal and even ordinary everything seems. The grief of the family is like any close-knit one coping with such devastating loss. Shira’s curiosity to catch a glimpse of the boy she may marry is like any teen’s interest in seeing if a boy is cute. Shira’s closeness with her friend Frieda (Hila Feldman), who is also hoping to marry, is like any teen girls’ friendships in many ways. 

Burshtein, who also wrote the script, knows this world well. The director was born in New York but attended film school in Jerusalem, becoming deeply religious during that time and deciding that it was important that someone within the Orthodox community make films about that community. 

The structure of the story, the warmth of the photography and the strength of the performances all add up to an engrossing drama that is both illuminating and moving. 

The writer/director uses this family drama to highlight aspects of life in this hidden community in the most natural of ways. As the story unfolds, we get a sense of family and community dynamics. Shira’s physically disabled Aunt Hanna (Razia Israeli), who lives with them, offers Shira advice. The family, meanwhile, seeks counsel from a senior rabbi (Melech Thal), who wisely focuses on Shira’s feelings. We get caught up in the dramatic tension between Shira and Yochay as we would any romantic back-and-forth.  All the acting is top-notch, particularly Yaron and Klein in the lead roles. 

The film is entirely focused on this Haredi community, although it never feels confining. Few scenes take place outside the home and the non-Orthodox Israeli world around them is present only when someone closes a window to shut out the music and sounds of celebration in the streets during Purim. Everything takes place in their world, from their perspective.  

Burshtein deliberately avoids putting the story in context of modern Israeli society, which some may see as a shortcoming. However, the tension between secular and Orthodox Jews in Israel was addressed in another Israeli film shown at the recent St. Louis Jewish Film Festival, “Brothers,” which explored the concerns of secular Israelis over the burden placed on the country by the growing numbers of Orthodox, since many of them do not work and do not serve in the Israeli army. The two films made for a good pair spotlighting an aspect of contemporary Israel. 

“Fill The Void” won the 2012 Venice Film Festival for Best Actress for Yaron, was featured at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival and garnered attention at the Cannes Film Festival. An official selection at both the Toronto and New York Film Festivals, it was chosen as Israel’s entry for the 2012 Oscars.

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