Like many 18-year-old girls, Shira (Hadas Yaron) is excited about meeting her future husband. See her stalk the supermarket aisles with her mother to take a gander at one of the matchmaker's prospects. (And really, what better place to comparison-shop than the market?) Potential spouse is in the dairy section. Even though he uses his prayer shawl as a handkerchief ("You'll have to do a lot of laundry," her mother wryly observes), Shira likes what she sees.
Timeless as a Jane Austen story and as culturally specific as The Godfather, Fill the Void is set in the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Jewish community of Tel Aviv. It is the feature debut of Rama Burshtein, herself a member of that community. Her subject is a woman's right to choose her spouse, and what a weighty, giddy, confusing, clarifying and, ultimately, sacred choice that is.
The process by which Shira makes that choice, straining to listen to her heart amid the din of family, friends and marriage broker, is quietly thrilling.
Shira's wedding plans are put on hold when during the Purim celebration her beloved older sister, Esther, dies in childbirth. Esther had a wonderful marriage with the adoring Yochay (Yiftach Klein). Her death is the void referred to in the title. Like a red tide, grief washes over the family. And more grief: Yochay has an offer to marry a widow in Belgium.
Even cheerful Shira, who works at a nursery school and plays the accordion for her charges, can play only dirgelike music. One afternoon, as Shira pacifies her nephew with music while Yochay watches, Shira's mother gets an idea. If Shira weds Yochay, her son-in-law and grandson would stay in Israel.
Shocking? There is biblical precedent. Levirate marriage - where a man is encouraged to wed the widow of his deceased brother - is cited in Deuteronomy. Shira wants to be a dutiful daughter. But doesn't she also deserve a husband of her own? Is it Shira's job to fill the void?
One of the great pleasures of Burshtein's touching and universal tale is how she frames women in this patriarchal order. As in an Old Master canvas, the men are the dark figures in the foreground and the women beacons of light in the deep space. While at the synagogue the men preside over the services on the main floor, the women in the balcony are closer to God. The women's perspectives are exalted here, not subsmissive.
Burshtein keeps the camera tight on the faces of her actors in a way that succeeds at making visible the invisible heat between the characters. The film's chaste eroticism and the community's deep respect for Shira's emotional and spiritual growth keep the audience in thrall.
Fill the Void ***1/2 (out of four stars)
Written and directed by Rama Burshtein. Starring Hadas Yaron and Yiftach Klein. Distributed by Sony Pictures Classics. In Hebrew with English subtitles.
Running time: 1 hour, 30 mins.
Parent's guide: PG (mature themes, treated with discretion and modesty)
Playing at: Ritz Five.