Some of the finest scenes in the somber, compelling Israeli drama “Fill the Void” involve no dialogue – just silence, stares, heavy breathing and deep thinking.
In one such scene, Shira, an 18-year-old living with her parents in an Orthodox Hassidic community in Tel Aviv, is on an elevator with her aunt, a gaggle of children and the man she expects to be married off to.
Shira, played by a quietly effective Hadas Yaron, looks down, the man looks away, and the only sounds are heavy breathing and kiddie giggling. It is a short moment that says much, and it’s an example of writer-director Rama Burshtein’s intensely focused, unhurried style.
Burshtein’s directing debut, “Fill the Void” is a delicate, involving, simply told drama that raises real questions about faith, family and free will, all while convincingly bringing to the screen a way of life that for many of us seems almost alien.
The Orthodox lifestyle is presented in an utterly straightforward manner, without commentary or condescension. Admittedly, to an outsider’s eyes, Burshtein’s film often feels as if it could have taken place at any point in the last five decades; the sudden appearance of a cellphone is rather jarring.
But this is indeed the present, and in the family led by loving father Aharon (Chayim Sharir) and mother Rivka (Irit Sheleg), the future seems set. Oldest daughter Esther (Renana Raz) and her husband, Yochay (Yiftach Klein), are about to have a child, and youngest daughter Shira’s marital match appears close.
But Esther’s death during childbirth changes everything. Yochay is now a single father, Aharon and Rivka are heartbroken parents, and Shira finds herself unexpectedly thrust into a seemingly can’t-win situation. Under pressure to marry a widow in Belgium, Yochay is presented with an idea by Rivka: marry Shira and stay in Tel Aviv.
We see the wheels turning in Rivka’s mind and watch as Yochay comes around to the idea; this is a film in which characters stop and think. But when dialogue is exchanged, it is often piercing.
Consider a stunning scene between Yochay and Shira, in which she asks him how he felt on the day of his marriage to Esther, “the most beautiful girl in the world.” This, Shira explains, is a feeling of overwhelming enthusiasm she will never have. By pressuring Shira to step into the role of new wife and mother, her family is taking away any choice of future, and Shira understands this better than anyone.
But Burshtein expertly portrays the complexities at hand.
What makes the situation so difficult as an audience member is how logical it begins to seem. Shira and Yochay get along well. Shira clearly loves her nephew. Her family adores Yochay and, of course, the baby. Shira should step in, correct?
Logical, maybe. But is it right? To an outsider, that answer is obvious, but even Shira is gripped by a sense of doubt.
The story heads in a direction that is without question predictable – this is not a film full of surprises, sometimes to its detriment – and yet that almost seems fitting. Tradition overwhelms spontaneity at every turn, just as expected.
Burshtein succeeds in presenting what feels like a complete community. After only a handful of scenes, we feel close to Shira, Aharon and Rivka, as well as to Frieda, the woman who watches others get married and wonders when and if she will be next.
Hadas Yaron is an example of note-perfect casting, appropriately making Shira seem at once innocent and naïve, but also logical and very, very smart. Yiftach Klein’s Yochay could have been a dull heavy, but instead is the film’s most complex character, a man who understands what is expected yet knows how difficult expectation can be. The other actors are all well-cast and well-drawn, with Hila Feldman’s Frieda a particular standout.
Is self-sacrifice in the interest of family and tradition a necessity? To most of the characters in “Fill the Void,” there is no need for argument.
But pay close attention to young Shira’s face, and you’ll see evidence of an internal debate that may never end.
Rating: 3½ stars