Eighteen-year-old Shira Mendelman hopes for the same thing as other women her age: marriage – through which most Hasidic women joyfully validate their existence. But Shira’s path is not as simple as getting betrothed by her parents or united through a matchmaker.
Israeli director Rama Burshtein’s film, “Fill the Void,” filmed in Hebrew and shown in the United States with English subtitles, takes place in young Shira’s conflicted heart. In an affluent Hasidic community in Tel Aviv, Shira struggles under the pressure of her family dictating who she is, what she does, and how she should feel.
After Shira’s older sister suddenly dies, leaving a new baby behind, the tightly knit community of Ultra-Orthodox Jews pressures her husband, Yochay, to remarry immediately. Although Yochay is portrayed as a deeply sensitive man devastated by his wife’s death, he considers a marriage offer overseas so that his son will be cared for.
Shira’s mother, unable to fathom losing her grandchild and son-in-law as well as her daughter, forms a plan to marry Shira to Yochay. Addressing the camera directly, Shira expresses her conflict about making a decision to marry that is not based on feelings. She lies paralyzed in bed, stricken with emotion over the prospect of going through with it.
Using wide-angle lenses and a shallow depth of field, the director focuses on the characters’ interactions and facial expressions. Their faces are often perfectly half-lit with a glowing ray of light, transfixing the viewer in their beauty. Religious song and melancholic accordion music fill the gaps in the terse dialogue and warm the scene. Burshtein’s 90-minute debut film is laden with sadness, but it does not overwhelm the audience. Instead, it dramatically draws viewers into a mysterious world unknown to most outsiders. ■