May 25, 2013

Fill The Void

This surprise hit, written and directed by Rama Burshtein, takes place inside the fold of a well-to-do orthodox Jewish family in Tel Aviv and it is remarkable for being a very sympathetic, insider's view of a cloistered world. Burshtein went to film school in Israel, and then became religious, so she has the advantage of straddling two world views. This, her first feature, is self-assured and very touching. It is unheard of for an orthodox woman to write and direct a film intended for a general audience. The restrictions that the haredim, as they are called, place on what women can and cannot do are legion. So Burshtein had to use mostly non-orthodox actors, and is very brave by forging ahead with a project that the more radical members of her community may consider offensive, even as it portrays them in a very good light.
Beautiful, soulful Shira (the amazing Hadas Yaron) is 18 years old and going through the arranged marriage dating ritual. That is, parents talk amongst themselves, trying to find a good match for their marriageable kids. The kids are slowly introduced to one another in the hopes that something will spark that will lead to a happy union, or at least not to unmitigated disaster. Shira sees her first candidate at a at an arranged viewing at a supermarket, of all places. Being young and innocent, her heart flutters, despite the fact that the young dork displays no interest in her and has nowhere near the charm or intelligence that she deserves. Marriage and procreation are the foremost obsession among orthodox Jews (and I venture to say, Jews in general), and just as marriage is celebrated with great joy, its absence is pretty much the worst that could happen. Shira's friends are getting married off, and we see the ambivalent reaction of elation and dread in Shira's face when one of them delivers the good news. For the young bride's older sister it's even worse. She sheds heavy tears of sorrow when she should be happy.
Shira's pregnant older sister dies in childbirth, leaving her husband Yohai (Yiftach Klein) a widower with a baby. A wife must be found for him, even though he is not ready to remarry, and the one candidate lives in Belgium. Shira's mother cannot abide the thought of losing her grandchild, so she gets the idea, which is something that tends to happen in this community, of marrying Shira to him.
Shira is appalled. Yohai is her beloved sisters' husband, which is gross. She doesn't see him as husband material (he's actually good looking, but in his early thirties, considered too old for her). She also wants to have her own experience with someone as fresh as her, not with someone who's been around the block. But at the same time, Shira feels its her responsibility to prevent more sadness in the family, to fill the void left by her sister. She is guileless, but also quite mature. The audience may be surprised to learn that the wishes of the parties are indeed taken into account by the parents, the matchmakers and the rabbis. Nobody wants to force young people to be miserable forever, although their lack of independence and experience may be difficult to surmount later on. As negotiations ebb and flow with Yohai, she doesn't realize that he has begun to see her with loving eyes, and his feelings are hurt by her cold resolve to marry him only in order to help her family. Shira makes mistakes and has several changes of heart. It's her coming of age, not only as a woman, but as a person.
Burshtein said that she wanted the setting of the movie to be Shira's heart and she achieves this by staying very close to her, (with the help of wonderful cinematography by Asaf Sudri). There is a beautiful, funny scene where she plays accordion in the kindergarten where she works, and her troubles make her drift into a haunting melody that definitely kills the mood of the jumping toddlers around her. Burshtein sustains a wonderful tone of warm, gentle humor and melancholy and shows that there are still choices to be made by individuals, that not all is as appalling as it looks from the uncomprehending outside.  Shira's middle aged aunt, for instance, covers her hair like a married woman, though she's a spinster. This is under the sage advice of the rabbi, so that people won't torture her with stares and questions. She has no arms, so why add further humiliation? By the same token, she confides in Shira that she almost got married once, to a guy who had a limp, but she didn't like him. There was a choice for her, as there is for Shira, even though it may seem very limited by our emancipated, secular standards. I despise the orthodox oppression of women and the regressive, neurotic rules they cling to that are nowhere to be found in the Bible, but it's good to know that it's not as bad as it seems. Granted, most of the characters in this movie are quite attractive, this is a wealthy family and the adults seem to be wise and sensible people. Things may be more dire in reality for members of this community that are not as blessed as this family. Still, Fill The Void is a warm, lovely film that brings us closer to a community with which we may feel we have nothing in common.
This is quite an achievement.

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