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Israel's official entry to the Oscars this year is probably too
minimalistic and low-key to make it to the final five, but it's a film
well worth watching and is in fact one of the best films I've seen so
far emerge from the growing Israeli cinema. Fill the Void is of
particular interest to Israeli viewers because it's a rare window into
the very closed-community lifestyle of the Orthodox Jews, giving very
rare insight as the film was made by an Orthodox director but with a
secular audience in mind, which is something never seen before. For
foreign viewers too, it may be a fascinating glimpse into an
anachronistic, static religious community that hardly ever opens itself
up like this to the general public.
Cinematically, Fill the Void is startlingly minimalistic; the story is a very brief glimpse into a very simple lifestyle. The gorgeous cinematography compliments that, constantly focusing on the contrast between Hadas Yaron's white face, the black clothing and the gray-brown backgrounds, but with a soft focus that makes it very easy to get lost inside. The cinematography itself is so aesthetic that it often conceals just how simple the story and the characters are - the film revolves around one moral question without giving too much insight into the thought processes of any of the characters. Its real achievement however is in enabling the viewer to be immersed in the environment and the lifestyle of a culture so different from what we're used to, and in that sense it's a triumph.
Put aside what you think you know or don't know about the inner world
of an orthodox Chassidic community in Tel Aviv, and let Rama Burshtein
weave a story that is believable, engrossing, and rich with nuance and
subtlety... the timeless themes found in a community which lives in the
past, the excellent acting, direction and casting, will have you
quickly absorbed in this terrific film.
If you are looking to vent your critique or holier than thou judgments of Jewish Orthodoxy, you may feel a bit humbled by the humanity found behind the long dresses, black robes and covered heads. The portrayal of the rabbi is an especially tender reflection of some one who is indeed spiritual, in the most human sense.
Over the last dozen or so years, no less than seven films have been
made about the orthodox religious community in Israel. These films are:
Forbidden Love (1999); Kadosh (1999); Bat Kol (Inner Voice) (2002); Ushpizin (2004); My Father, My Lord (2007); The Secrets (2007); Eyes Wide Open (2009).
All these films were made by non-religious or at least non-orthodox film makers, and then along came Fill the Void. Its director and scriptwriter, Rama Burshtein, is an orthodox woman who is also a film maker.
Which raises the question whether this new film is more authentic than the previous ones, whether it portrays the orthodox community more faithfully. It should be understood that the orthodox communities in Israel are tightly-knit units, abhorring the outside, modern Western way of life which they perceive as decadent, immoral and corruptive. They still dress as did their ancestors in the Shtetl in Eastern Europe centuries ago, talk mostly Yiddish among themselves and of course, inter-marry only within their milieu.
Fill the Void is indeed about this latter issue, the question of marriage. The questions raised by the protagonists may seem quaint and even amusing to us, but seem of paramount importance to them, as if no other issues occupy their closed life.
This reviewer has no way of assessing the veracity of the facts and can only rely on subjective impressions. The film "rings true", feels true, and the fact that some of the actors come from a religious background adds to the feeling. Viewers might sneer at the seemingly irrelevant questions facing those "strange" people, but the acting convincingly conveys the sentiment that we are indeed dealing with a grave situation.
I came out of the theater thinking not about the heroine, blandly played by Hila Feldman, or about the way she handles her private demons and dilemmas, but about the strange, foreign, incomprehensible community living not a mile away from my house in the same city, yet separated from me by an unbridgeable chasm.
A disturbing movie.
This is a gorgeous film. The cinematography, largely revealing closeups of the characters, is stunning, bringing us close in to an unfamiliar world, an insular, deeply religious culture. The acting is flawless. But what brings me to give this film a top rating is the story, one of moral complexity--life, after all, is complicated, a truism that Hollywood films fail miserably in addressing, the rare times they attempt to do so (perhaps "The Master" and "Doubt" are exceptions). A young, innocent woman desires to make a marriage match that is in accordance with her Jewish Orthodox tradition and yet in some ineffable way is personally to her taste. At first this seems possible, but unforeseen circumstances make her choice of marriage partner difficult. She is not just choosing for herself and potential partner but her choice is central to the happiness or unhappiness of relatives and friendsa situation of which she is acutely aware. How can she make the right choice for everyone, herself included? In a culture seeped in moral values, the moral answer to her dilemma is not an easy one. It has been a long time since I've been so deeply moved by a film.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
For those who are inclined to seek their pound of flesh from the
extremely pious devotees of religion, director Rama Burshtein's intense
dissection of how an Israeli Hasidic family copes with a domestic
tragedy, may seem to be a just critique of religious extremism in
general. But as a member of such a community, Ms. Burshtein's intent is
not to criticize such a community but to show its humanity, warts and
'Fill the Void' begins as we're introduced to the larger Hasidic Jewish community during the Festival of Purim. As the Bible says, 'Be fruitful and multiply'; as a result, Hasidic families usually end up having large families. It's a 'Mitzvah' for the head Rabbi to dole out wads of cash to the fathers who are having a hard time trying to pay the bills, given the numbers of children involved. But not all the issues involve economic need; one man complains about his 'mentally ill' wife. The Rabbi's solution: more cash. The man shoves the money back in protest and it's obvious that the head Rabbi's solutions can't always revolve around financial remuneration.
The focus of 'Fill the Void', is the upper middle class Hasidic Mendelman family from Tel Aviv. The father is a kindly man, Rabbi Aharon, who's married to Rifka. The break into the second Act occurs when their 28 year old daughter, Esther, dies in childbirth, after giving birth to a son, Mordechay.
After the funeral, the son-in-law, Yochay, is hesitant to accept an offer to marry a widow in Belgium, and bring the newborn with him to a foreign country. Rifka's solution is to try and convince her surviving 18 year old daughter, Shira, to marry Yochay, and become a good mother to Mordechay.
Shira, a sensitive but tough soul, was expecting to be matched up with a young man her age. The idea that she should shack up with her brother- in-law, is repugnant to her, not only because of the subtle feeling that such an act is incestuous but because she's being robbed of the opportunity of experiencing being a newlywed with a partner who's also going in completely fresh.
While Yochay has his doubts, things become more complicated when Shira insists that an older family friend, Frieda, would be a better match for her brother-in-law. Yochay is insulted but soon comes around to the idea of marrying the much younger Shira, at the strong urging of Shira's mother, Rifka.
The pressure on Shira is subtle but Ms. Burshstein makes it clear that Shira is never forced into anything. When they go before the head Rabbi who asks Shira what are her "feelings" about her pending decision, Shira claims that it's not a "matter" of feelings but rather, a matter of expediency. Quoting the famed Rabbi Nachman, the head Rabbi, calls the wedding off as he realizes Shira's motivations for this marriage are negative. This decision plunges Shira's mother into despair.
Shira eventually changes her tune. One factor is that she finally gets to meet the young man she originally was betrothed to. He turns out to be a complete dud. And then after she meets with Yochay again, he shows her his sensitive side, breaking down over his wife's recent death and trying to cope with all the pressure. Shira eventually changes her mind, recognizing that Yochay is worth shacking up with. Not only is it now for the good of the child but, she will go into this union with genuine affection for her brother-in-law.
Ms. Burshstein paints a portrait of a community that also has its share of outsiders, peripheral characters who must find a way to fit into the insular community, despite having handicaps or flaws. One such character is Rifka's sister, Shira's aunt, who has no arms and never married. We're also introduced to a lonely widow, who interrupts the head rabbi by lamenting that she doesn't know how to choose a suitable oven for her kitchen.
All the performances in 'Fill the Void' are spot on, particularly Hadras Yaron, as the tough as nails teenager, Shira and Yiftach Klein, as the sensitive and thoughtful brother-in-law, Yochay.
Critics of religious fundamentalism may still interpret 'Fill the Void' in their own way. At first glance, the rules by which this community live by, seem awfully restrictive, particularly the way in which children are married off and women can't participate in the rituals, in the same joyous way, the men do. Nonetheless, Ms. Burshtein, through her sensitive story, proves that this community is a lot more open, than the average person gives them credit for.
As a watcher of many movies I often find myself bored at watching the
same tired clichés recycled over and over and packaged as original
Thats why i was refreshed to watch this movie- a film that has an original story and gives us a look at a different world.
I found the casting to be excellent. The male lead was strong & handsome and inhabited his role with controlled emotion and dignity. The female lead was beautiful in an innocent way and her demure manner and emotional expressions were well suited for her role.
Well done & thanks for a good film experience!
Gets _way_ further inside the world of the "Orthodox Jew" than anything
I've ever even heard about before. The director and some of the actors
really are Orthodox, so the portrayals of both home life and ceremonies
that are seldom photographed are truly accurate, not just informed
guesses. Yet this is not an "ethnographic record", it's a feature film.
And the cinematography is excellent, about as far from an "amateur home
movie" as you could possibly get.
The glass-half-full description is "a character study" - the glass-half-empty description is "slow boiler". Those prone to getting fidgety will probably be tested beyond their endurance. The psychological nuances aren't trivial - this film is the official submission of Israel to the Best Foreign Language Film for the Academy Awards.
The treatment of women looks "old-fashioned" to us: separate rooms, hair covering, emergency health care workers restricted if they might see something they normally wouldn't ...all the horror stories we've heard. This deeper look though shows us the considerable adaptation and flexibility around those rules-- architecture modified so those separate rooms aren't all that separate, a spinster covering her hair on the advice of her rebbe even though she'd never been married so people wouldn't ask so many awkward questions, the wife controlling the money in a rebbe's household, arranging clandestine peeks at potential mates via cellphone. The clumps of women standing in doorways reminded me powerfully of the clumps of servants in those Manor House period piece films like Gosford Park. The blocking of access to females in physical distress reminds me of stories out of Saudi Arabia. And the photo I saw later of a "fashion designer" Muslim hair covering looked so much like what these Orthodox women wear I did a double-take.
No easy answers, no "good guys" and "bad guys". There are both pros and cons. Downsides include difficulty finding a marriage partner, great difficulty keeping widows and widowers within the community, birth defects apparently from genetic inbreeding, and almost complete loss of input into the direction of the surrounding society/economy. Upsides include very strong support from both family and friends, and unparalleled community closeness. Where else do non-relatives easily call other adults by their pet names when the going gets rough? And how often do family friends feel free to proffer a word of contrary advice at any time? And although someone's decision to move away is often somewhat painful to others, where else would people literally rather die?
Beforehand I was ready to keep my distance and laugh at "those silly people". But watching it I realized the film applies equally well to _all_ communities that are "in the world but not of the world": fundamentalist Christians; even hippies who've resigned themselves to having zero political influence. There's a whole lot of space in the middle on the line with "modern society" on one end and "a cult" on the other end. Although on the surface this film is about a particular world that's about as familiar to me as living on Mars, the deeper story of gaining community but losing interaction with the surrounding society/economy still has me ruminating days later.
Israeli director Rama Burshtein's powerfully moving Fill the Void,
Israel's submission to the 2012 Oscars, is about love and marriage but,
in the Orthodox Hasidic community in Tel Aviv, they do not necessarily
go together like a horse and carriage. Hadas Yaron, winner of the Best
Actress Award at the Venice Film Festival in her first film role, is
eighteen year-old Shira who is very close to being matched and promised
to a local young man. When her older sister Esther (Renana Raz) dies in
childbirth, however, her husband, the striking-looking Yochay (Yiftak
Klein), is left to raise his young son Mordecai by himself and,
according to tradition, has a duty to remarry once the formal mourning
period is over.
This is where the film's central dilemma comes in and Shira's choice to "do the right thing" is severely tested by conflicting loyalties. After her family celebrates the Jewish holiday Purim, Shira and her mother, Rivka (Irit Sheleg) in a scene with Woody Allen overtones, are sent by the matchmaker to "shop" in the supermarket to find a suitable husband. When the right man is found, arrangements are made, even though Shira does not actually meet the young man until later in the film. When her mother learns that Yochay has a marriage offer from a widow living in Belgium, however, and cannot face the idea of the baby being taken away, she asks the matchmaker Mr. Shtreicher (Michael David Weigl) to arrange for Shira to marry Yochai, who is ten years older.
Fill the Void is a heartfelt and intimate look inside a world few of us ever have contact with. Sensitive to the orthodox community's rituals and traditions, however anachronistic they may seem to us, there is a feeling behind the rituals that binds people together and produces a feeling of closeness in the community, underscored by the rhythmic chants and joyous celebrations of special occasions. Though the purpose of every girl is to be married may seem offensive, in the culture in which it takes place, it is not demeaning, and the film does not stand in judgment of its characters or of the community.
As director Rama Buhrstein, a member of the Orthodox community herself, describes the film, "It's not about being an anthropologist or about religion or secularism. Rather, it's about the heart." Shira is asked to choose between her sense of duty to her family and community and her desire to fulfill her own dreams. Throughout the process, however, she is not alone and is always surrounded by love and support from mothers, fathers, aunts, rabbis, even though their advice may be conflicting. Her affectionate Aunt Hanna (Razia Israeli), who never married because of a disability, encourages Shira to do what is right for herself, putting her at odds with her mother.
Shira's older unwed cousin Frieda (Hila Feldman) tells her that it was Esther's wish that she marry Yochay if anything should happen to her, a proposition Yochay rebels at. Sensing Shira's confusion and uncertainty about marrying Yochay, however, the chief Rabbi (Melech Thal) refuses to bless the marriage. Even as many emotions seem to be happening all at the same time, the resolution of the conflict is poignant and even beautiful and it all comes together in a memorable final shot.
The Israeli film Lemale et ha'halal was shown in the United States with
the title "Fill the Void" (2012). It was written and directed by Rama
Burshtein. Other films exist about highly observant Jews, both in
Israel and the U.S. However, this movie is unusual because the director
herself if part of the orthodox community. She knows how people act,
what they say, how they celebrate, and how they mourn.
As in many communities where a woman's outside options are limited, marriage is a central and crucial moment in their lives. Matches are arranged, but the woman always has the right to turn down a prospective suitor. Even so, the decision about whom to marry is critically important.
The wonderful young Israeli actor Hadas Yaron plays Shira, whose time for marriage has come. A match has been made, and Shira is excited about meeting the young man and, presumably, falling in love with him. Then tragedy strikes. Shira's loving older sister dies in childbirth, leaving behind a baby boy and a widower. In order to keep the family together, it is suggested that Shira marry the baby's father. He appears to be a fine man, but he's older than she is. Also, as Shira points out, she had dreams of exploring marriage with a young man, not with a previously-married man who has a child.
It would have been easy for the director to craft a story where the whole community is pushing Shira to marry Yochay, her late sister's widower. That's not how the film was crafted. Everyone respects Shira's right to decide, and Yochay isn't desperate, either. A match has been made for him with a woman from Belgium. (The problem is that he'd have to move to Belgium to be with her, and, of course, he'd take his infant son with him.)
You'll have to see the film to find out what happens next. However, the movie is far more than just a vehicle for a plot. It's an intimate look into the lives of the ultra-orthodox, and into the heart and mind of a young woman who wants to do what is right, but also what is best.
Fill the Void won six Israeli Academy Awards, including Best Actress, Best Director, and Best Film. Hadas Yaron won the Best Actress award at the 2012 Venice Film Festival.
We saw this film at Rochester's Dryden Theatre as part of the exceptional Rochester Jewish Film Festival. I think it will work better on a large screen than on DVD, but it's worth searching for it and seeing it on a small screen if necessary. For reasons I can't understand, this movie has a lukewarm IMDb rating of 6.6. Why? It's a brilliant film and deserves to be seen. Ignore the low rating, and don't miss "Fill the Void."
In this movie an eighteen-year-old girl, living in an Orthodox Jewish environment, has to make a fateful decision while surrounded with uncertainty-- not only about the consequences of her decision but also about the limits, both outside herself and within herself, on her freedom of action. The movie focuses prominently on her not only figuratively but literally. Her pale, round, expressive face fills the foreground again and again, against the background of brownish interiors and black-clothed men, and it's not a face the viewer gets tired of, nor does it turn her predictable. There are surprises in her behavior, and the audience accepts them. Not so with her male counterpart; when his emotional scene came, I'm sorry to report there were people in the audience who laughed. The movie hadn't made the necessary prior investment in sympathy for him. But to the extent that it belongs to Hadas Yaron as an actress and a photographic subject, it's well worth watching-- and it knows it is; it gives the audience plenty of time to appreciate each shot.
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