The opening shot of "Fill the Void" captures the faces of a mother and daughter swiveling their heads, clearly searching for someone or something. The camera remains still as the women turn to scan the room, allowing the two to alternately shift into and out of focus.
Beautiful and mysterious, these first glimpses are an ideal primer for the Israeli film, which never rushes to spell out the meanings of its subtle and quiet moments.
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"Fill the Void"★ ★★ ½
Starring: Hadas Yaron, Yiftach Klein, Irit Sheleg, Chaim Sharir
Directed by: Rama Burshtein
Other: A Sony Pictures Classic release. Rated PG. In Hebrew with subtitles. 90 minutes
The Hasidic mother and daughter turn out to be Rivka (Irit Sheleg) and 18-year-old Shira (the gifted Hadas Yaron). They're scouring a grocery store to scope out a young man that Rivka and her rabbi husband Aharon (Chayim Sharir) hope Shira will consider marrying. One peek, and Shira is ready to be his wife. But before the pairing can be set in motion, tragedy befalls the family. Shira's older sister dies during childbirth, leaving her husband, Yochay (Yiftach Klein), a first-time father and widower.
Rivka fears Yochay will remarry and move abroad, taking her grandson along, so she proposes an alternative: Yochay should marry his late wife's sister, Shira. Both Yochay and Shira have reservations about this arrangement, understandably, and the film follows the pair's process of grappling with this potential outcome so soon after a heartbreaking loss.
Despite the charged story line, the film remains understated. There are no histrionics, even when Shira feels the immense burden of her mother's expectations to marry a man she had never imagined loving. Yochay, too, feels the strain. But rather than resorting to anger or passive aggressiveness, he looks at Rivka and simply says, "You're pressuring me."
The characters and sequences in writer-director Rama Burshtein's debut feature will look foreign to most American audiences. The actors dress according to Orthodox Jewish custom; the traditions of the faith are readily apparent (especially the separation of the sexes); and each young unmarried woman seems concerned with the single task of finding a husband. Yet, the story feels remarkably universal with its themes of loss and family loyalty, not to mention the realization that life may not align with our idealized expectations.
Meanwhile, the attention to tradition and concern for marriage unexpectedly call to mind "Pride and Prejudice," especially with the character of Frieda (Hila Feldman), who could be a modern-day Hasidic version of Jane Austen's Charlotte Lucas. Shira's friend appears to have no prospects for marriage, which invites the open pity of everyone around her, especially during weddings.
Marriage ceremonies are just one of the rituals highlighted in "Fill the Void," which consists mainly of intimate scenes of everyday life, including a Purim celebration, a Shabbat meal and a bris. The only real indication of the world beyond this community occurs when rock music wafts into the apartment from the street outside. "Close the window," Aharon tells Yochay.
It's a simple command, but there seems to be much more meaning beneath the surface. The movie confounds at times with its aversion to clearly explaining each relationship and ritual, but ultimately that makes each realization seem more like a new discovery.