Fill the Void, the impressive debut feature by Israeli writer/director Rama Burshtein, tells a story of a tightly-knit community and the pressures related to arranged marriages. It would be easy to grow annoyed at the young adults for perpetuating such a restrictive culture, but there are rewards to being part of the insular society. While there are many things you cannot do, you are surrounded by supportive people with a common belief system and similar values. And in the case of the characters in this story, it's the world in which they grew up.
The film takes place in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish Haredi community in Tel Aviv (the subtitled production is in Hebrew). 18-year-old Shira (Hadas Yaron) is engaged to be married when tragedy strikes. Her older sister, Esther (Renana Raz) dies, leaving behind a newborn baby and a grief-stricken husband, Yochay (Yiftach Klein).
Marriages in the community are vitally important and the women marry young, usually in unions arranged by parents and professional matchmakers. The woman has input, to be sure, and the right to say no, but the pressure to play one's part in the societal traditions is tremendous.
After a time, Yochay opts to pair with a woman from Belgium, which is unacceptable to Shira's mother (Irit Sheleg), who is horrified at the prospect of her only grandchild being taken away from Israel. A idea is hatched: What if Shira married her sister's widower? It's not a notion that folks are thrilled with, but it would take care of the problem. However, while Shira has always gotten along well enough with Yochay, she has never thought of him in romantic terms and besides, the idea of replacing her sister just doesn't feel right.
There are no villains here. The situation springs from a cultural system to which every person in the film subscribes. No one is threatening Shira and she has the right to say no. But the cultural pressure, the sense of duty and the needs of her family are all at odds with Shira's desires.
Writer/director Burshtein, a member of the Haredi in real life, presents the story in a fashion that focuses primarily on the story and the individuals. We are given no primer on the Haredi and certainly no judgment is passed on the community values. You are left to watch and make of it what you will. Or you can elect not to judge and simply take in the fascinating society and the Jane Austen-ish story.
Burshtein's direction is unhurried, but never slow; thoughtful, but not righteous. We are watching people belonging to a distinctive religious group from the point of view of an insider, and what an interesting experience that is. The acting is top notch by all involved, especially by the actors playing Shira and Yochay. Both portray their characters with richness and strength tempered by uncertainty.
When I left the theater after watching Fill the Void I breathed a sigh of relief. Not because the movie was bad, but because it was a refreshing to be out and about without the weight of Haredi traditions on my shoulders.