Review: Fill the Void

Rama Burshtein’s film unfolds in unhurried dramatic terms that come to take on an almost fatalistic force.

Fill the Void
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

Employing long static takes, restricting her shots largely to interiors and strategically alternating between depth staging and blurry backgrounds, Rama Burshtein brings a sense of inevitability and constriction to the insular world of Israeli Hassidic Judaism in Fill the Void that neatly highlights the paucity of options available to her characters. Although the film focuses specifically on the plight of women in a community in which their chief role is as wives and mothers, and the dictates of marriage are of the utmost importance, Burshtein never forces the issue, letting it unfold in unhurried dramatic terms that come to take on an almost fatalistic force.

For 18-year-old Shira (Hadas Yaron), choice is severely limited, and when she tries to assert her own agency the community erupts in a subdued crisis, registering as a series of negotiations rather than displays of outright histrionics. The tragedy is chiefly hers, but in Burshtein’s handling, the reverberations are felt by everyone in the community, the men as equally trapped by the demands placed on their own gender as their female counterparts. An early scene in which the local rabbi gives money on the Purim holiday to his male constituents as they plead their case for financial support not only recalls Don Corleone granting requests at his daughter’s wedding, but gets at the economic woes that come from enforced raising of oversized family.

The central drama of the film, however, revolves around the death of the wife of community stalwart, Yohay (Yiftach Klein), while giving birth. When the baby survives, Yohay is pressured into taking a new wife to raise the child, with the most likely candidate being the widower’s sister-in-law, Shira. Despite that young women’s reluctance, she’s placed under immense pressure to wed Yohay by her mother, who wants to keep the baby near her, rather than have Yohay pursue another marriage offer that would take him to Belgium. Meanwhile a jealous “old maid” who can’t be much older than 30, desperate to fulfill what fading marriage prospects she has left, angles for Yohay’s hand, and Shira bemoans her inability to wed the man she prefers, a younger Yeshiva student.

Burshtein unfolds her complex drama with a deft, patient hand, tracking the manipulations and transactions that mark the community’s behaviors while registering the fallout of Shira’s reluctance to wed against her will. It’s a tightly wound film, for all its seemingly relaxed pace, and one that shrewdly maps out the levels of social obligation that affect all the film’s characters. When Burshtein finally tightens the noose, the effects aren’t quite devastating, but she manages to steer her climax toward a powerful scene of claustrophobia that suggests the inevitability inherent in a way of life so heavily dictated by arcane and intractable custom.

 Cast: Yiftach Klein, Hadas Yaron, Hila Feldman, Razia Israeli, Renana Raz, Ido Samuel, Chayim Sharir, Irit Sheleg  Director: Rama Burshtein  Screenwriter: Rama Burshtein  Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics  Running Time: 90 min  Rating: NR  Year: 2012  Buy: Video

Andrew Schenker

Andrew Schenker is an essayist and critic living in upstate New York. His writing has appeared in The Baffler, The Village Voice, Artforum, Bookforum, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and others.

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