Fill the Void was Israel’s official submission for the Academy Awards’ Best Foreign Language category. Although it ultimately did not get nominated, it’s easy to see why it was chosen to represent its country. It’s a film in which director Rama Burshtein attempts to immerse the audience in a culture that rarely gets to speak for itself in mass media, and to tell an honest, realistic story freed from the tedious debates that pit Orthodox Hasidic Judaism against secular ideology. Unfortunately, the film does not entirely succeed.
Eighteen-year-old Shira (Hadas Yaron), the youngest daughter of an Orthodox Hasidic family, is about to be married off to a promising young man. But her proposed marriage gets indefinitely postponed when her older sister dies during childbirth. In a culture where being unmarried is a stigma, newly widowed and grieving Yochay (Yiftach Klein) is placed under immediate pressure to find a new wife. Shira’s mother, realizing that she could lose her only grandchild to another family, proposes a match between Shira and Yochay –– a match that pits the desires of the family against the uncertain will of the heart.
Ostensibly, the story is about how Shira eventually falls in love with Yochay, thus validating the loving culture the filmmaker is clearly keen on showing to the world. But in execution, Shira comes across as capricious, manipulative, and shallow. She whines about no longer being able to marry her original match, even though she’s hardly said a word to him, then entertains a number of other suitors even though it is quite clear she has no intentions of seriously considering any of them. Shira then lies to Yochay by telling him her sister would have wanted him to marry another person, for reasons that are frankly baffling. All of this puts everyone under a massive amount of stress, which would be understandable if Shira was desperate to avoid a bad marriage. But there is a definite suggestion in the final shot of the film that the simple act of getting married is what gives her joy, and it really doesn’t matter to whom –– which is odd, because she had plenty of earlier opportunities to get married for the sake of getting married. It also runs contrary to Burshtein’s stated goal of making a film that bridges the religious-secular divide through “some common denominator that can be found in the heart.”
It’s impossible to make a film about a culture without audiences from other cultures viewing it through their own biases, especially when the subject of the story is so close to the elements that secularists find objectionable. Here we have a film that features an unmarried woman pretending to be married to avoid the shame, a mother who tries to get her other daughter to marry her ex-son-in-law so she won’t lose access to her grandchild, and another woman who actively works at undermining other marriages because she’s bitter that no one has ever proposed a match with her –– then is ecstatic when she’s married to someone twice her age, just because she’s finally married. From a secular perspective, it’s much easier to read Fill the Void as a critique of a repressed society than it is to see it as an honest depiction of the universally experienced loves and tragedies that unite us all as human beings.
Had the film focused on Yochay instead, it just might have worked. A man struggling to cope with his grief at the loss of his beloved wife, his reluctant but inevitable attraction to his wife’s sister, and his determination to do right by his newborn son –– precisely the sort of person whose story can bridge the widest cultural gaps. The film’s plethora of strengths would have been united under a compelling protagonist. This is a film shot with an unusual yet elegant visual flair, peppered with sharp moments of wit and insight, and imbued with a poetic grace that relishes in the beauty of a vibrant culture. There is a complete lack of irony in the way the film rejoices in its multiple celebrations – a film that wants desperately to be as carefree as it is somber.
But where the grave moments in the film feel genuine, the happiness feels entirely hollow. The film seems to be completely unaware that none of the characters experience happiness that is not fundamentally superficial. Perhaps if that were the point, the film would feel insightful. Instead, it comes across as sadly naive.