It’s fair to say that Hasidic Judaism is a subject matter somewhat untapped in cinema, as a world and culture relatively overlooked. There is therefore a distinct sense of intrigue attached to Rama Burshtein’s Fill the Void, as it finally makes its way to British cinemas. Though despite the uniquity that exists, this pensive drama remains relatable, as the themes explored can be translated in a variety of ways, as the pure, human emotion on show is universal.
When Shira (Hadas Yaron) comes of age, by tradition, the devout 18-year-old Israeli is now expected to marry. Though content and acceptant of such a fate, her world is thrown into disarray when her older sister Esther (Renana Raz) passes away during childbirth. Pressure then mounts on the young girl’s shoulders to enter into an arranged, levirate marriage with her sister’s widow Yochay (Yiftach Klein) and care for his motherless son. Any such apprehensions and misgivings towards the arrangement are frowned upon on Shira’s part, as her independence is not an option in this strict, Orthodox community.
Burshtein has presented this picture in a soft focus, giving it an almost surrealistic, dreamlike ambiance. Such a technique almost makes this story feel like a fairytale, which, in some respects, in can be perceived as being. That’s not to say this film isn’t naturalistic, as it’s harrowingly real in points – but the premise of a young girl being married off against her will is actually a somewhat conventional concept in fairytales, and a theme the likes of Disney have explored in films such as Brave and Pocahontas. Burshtein treads very carefully in her depiction of such a culture, scrutinising this archaic tradition, and yet doing so delicately and with no malice nor ridicule. She even celebrates certain aspects of it – with a protagonist portraying the fact that women do have a voice in society, while there is love to be found, with a warmth to this title in parts. Though Esther and Yochay had been brought together somewhat artificially, their love for one another was evidently strong, with heartbreaking bereavement on show at the former’s funeral.
The cultural aspects extend to the atmospheric music that is implemented, enhancing the setting with a variety of Jewish songs and hymns, nearly all of which are acapella. Singing in unison amongst friends is such a common hobby for the characters in the film, often bursting into song around the dinner table, and it’s these moments which make up the majority of the soundtrack, creating a distinctive, brooding atmosphere. Such sequences also portray the male dominance that exists – as the voices heard are those of the men, deeply harmonising together while the women seem unobliging in their participation. To help bring the viewer into this story effectively, we are peering into the culture from a somewhat naïve perspective, as our entry point is the somewhat misguided Shira, who learns about this world as we do. Yaron is wonderful in the lead role too, bringing so much sincerity with her performance. She’s very passive and elusive too, and it’s a credit to the young actress that remains so absorbing, as her character shows little emotion.
Fill the Void is an alluring and thought-provoking piece of cinema, and one that has been ingeniously put together. Burshtein’s debut was something of a triumph on the festival circuit, with various nominations and victories in prestigious award categories, and on this evidence it’s easy to see exactly why this was the case.