We all wrestle with grief in our own personal ways, and in her debut film Fill the Void, writer/director Rama Burshtein skillfully explores the ways that one Orthodox Jewish family contends with the unexpected death of a devoted wife and mother. Thoroughly imbued with Jewish culture, Fill the Void may at first feel alienating to viewers unfamiliar with the characters’ traditions and customs, but Burshtein’s obvious reverence for her faith will no doubt prove a draw for those who share it and her sensitive portrayal of a delicate subject displays an acute understanding of the universal human condition.
The youngest daughter of an Orthodox Rabbi, Shira (Hadas Yaron) has recently begun the search for a husband as her older sister Ester (Renana Raz) prepares to deliver her first child. The happy occasion is colored by tragedy, however, when Ester dies during childbirth, rendering her beloved husband Yochay (Yiftach Klein) a widower, and their newborn son motherless. In the wake of Ester’s death, her father, Rabbi Aharon (Chaim Sharir), implores Yochay to seek out a new mother for the child. Meanwhile, Shira and her mother Rivka (Irit Sheleg) dutifully look after the baby. Then one day, while watching Shira bond with the newborn, Rivka becomes convinced that the solution to their problem is to arrange a marriage between Shira and Yochay. When Yochay displays serious reservations about marrying his sister-in-law and Shira expresses her late sister’s desire to have him remarry their oldest sibling Frieda (Hila Feldman) in the event of a disaster, Rivka grows deeply despondent at the prospect of Yochay leaving Tel Aviv to accept the offer of an arranged marriage in Belgium. Despite their initial reservations, Yochay and Shira soon begin to entertain the prospect of a union, even after Shira’s youthful naivety opens a deep psychic wound on her still-grieving brother-in-law. In time, however, the young girl realizes that the needs of her family may take precedence over her own desire to save herself for the perfect marriage, leading to one of the most difficult decisions she has ever had to make.
A quiet and meditative film, Fill the Void tells a tender story with poise and grace. As a writer, Burshtein displays a strong sense of character motivation as she brings the inner-conflict of Shira and Yochay to the surface through a satisfying blend of actions, expressions, and exposition. As a director she displays a gift for evoking naturalistic performances from her cast, as well as a strong eye for visuals. It’s Burshtein’s subtle skill in showing how the shockwaves of Ester’s sudden death affect everyone who was a part of her life -- not merely Shira and Yochay -- that help Fill the Void transcend the trappings of your typical family melodrama. Concurrently, cinematographer Assaf Sudry’s artful work and close detailing bring out the beauty of the family’s modest surroundings, such as capturing the glimmering sunlight flooding into their kitchen, while utilizing intimate framing to reinforce the stakes of their struggle. In a scene that finds single Frieda faced with the reality that her late sister’s wishes for her to marry Yochay won’t be fulfilled, Burshtein summons a lingering sibling conflict to the surface in a way that’s emotionally resonant without feeling exploitive.
In the hands of a lesser director these secondary plots could have easily overshadowed the main drama, yet Burshtein displays a keen talent for keeping everything in perspective. As a result, the drama in Fill the Void balances out in a manner that continues to draw us in as the story plays out, making Burshtein’s debut drama an unexpected gem, even for those who may not possess the background needed to fully appreciate all of its culturally specific nuances. leave a comment --Jason Buchanan