Mostly Filler, by David Bax
Given the overwhelmingly bourgeois, liberal sensibilities of the world cinema crowd here in the U.S., it’s rare that we get to see a film set in a devout, cloistered, tradition-based religious milieu that doesn’t stand in judgment of it. Despite the fact that Rama Burshtein’s Fill the Void concerns an eighteen-year-old woman being maneuvered into an arranged marriage, there’s no moral tsk-tsking. It’s simply a human drama, albeit one that takes place in a unique surrounding. Unfortunately, that uniqueness is not enough to keep it from often being very dull.
Shira (Hadas Yaron), the youngest daughter of an Orthodox Hassidic family in Tel Aviv, has just turned eighteen and is excited to become a bride in a marriage that is being arranged for her by her parents. When her older sister, Esther (Renana Raz), dies in childbirth, Shira’s mother (Irit Sheleg) comes up with a new plan. In order to keep her new grandson in the family home, she will lobby for Shira to marry Esther’s widower, Yochay (Yiftach Klein).
Burshtein, making her debut, clearly has talent as a director of actors. The performances are so roundly naturalistic, there are times you would believe they are non-actors caught on film while living their lives.
Formalistically, Burshtein makes less of an impression. Mostly, she falls back on a handheld presentation that will be familiar to those who have watched indie dramas in any country over the past couple decades. It conveys an urgency but is not specific as to what it is urgent about. Occasionally, though, she and her cinematographer, Asaf Sudri, are tuned in enough to their characters’ inner lives to achieve a startling degree of intimacy, even in large group scenes.
Though one wouldn’t expect it from the subject matter, humor is refreshingly present in Fill the Void. Though never disrespectful of the culture in which it’s set, the movie has fun with the peculiar specifics of the customs. In the opening scene, when Shira has not yet met the man to whom she may be wed, she and her mother go to the grocery store where they’ve been told he’ll be in order to spy on him in the dairy section. In another scene, Shira is required to walk behind Yochay and her father in public. She wants to know what they’re saying to each other. When the camera cuts to the other side, we realize they are locked in an awkward silence. Later, a solemn meeting with the rabbi is interrupted when he has to help an old woman who lives alone shop for a new oven.
Fill the Void’s fleeting strength is its adroitness with tiny, recognizably human moments. Some of them are funny and some of them are poignant. But there just aren’t enough of them. Or, more to the point, what brief, insightful instants esist aren’t deep enough to sustain beyond their duration. And what surrounds them is vastly boring.