Judge Michael Nazarewycz sits shiva.
"A deed must be done and I want to do it to everyone's satisfaction."
The concept of an arranged marriage is difficult for me to grasp. The notion that someone else can select your life partner based on reasons that have nothing to do with love feels counterintuitive. Still, this is a common practice in other cultures, and just as arranged marriages seem foreign to me, so too might living together before marriage—something many other cultures practice—seem foreign to others. Fill the Void is a sparkling tale of love, loss, obligation, and sacrifice, all within the context of culture and arranged marriages.
Facts of the Case
Shira (Hadas Yaron, Out of Sight, 2006) is a Hassidic girl with a bright future. She's young, pretty, and has a fine prospect for her arranged marriage. Her world changes at Purim, however, when her pregnant sister, Esther (Renana Raz, Munich), dies unexpectedly, leaving behind a husband and the newborn that doctors were able to save before she passed.
That husband, Yochay (Yiftach Klein, Policeman), soon has designs on remarrying (as is customary). This creates a problem for his late wife's mother, Rivka (Irit Sheleg, Night Terrors). If Yochay marries the woman he is considering, he and his child—Rivka's grandchild—will move from Israel to Belgium. To prevent this, Rivka suggests that Yochay and Shira be matched, despite Shira's bright prospects and despite a third sister, Frieda (Hila Feldman, …Be yom hashlishi), being unattached.
Rookie writer/director Rama Burshtein knows how to make a first impression. As the film's scribe, she has crafted a story that on the surface seems very simple: a family is in crisis and a sacrifice must be made. Beneath that surface, though, lies rich dichotomy: the joy of birth overshadowed by the sorrow of death; the enthusiasm of youth tempered by the stoicism of maturity; the song of the heart drowned out by the call of obligation. The story is well-considered and perfectly layered.
As the film's director, Burshtein takes this story and frames it with a wonderful eye. The camerawork is intimate but never intrusive; the director manages to put everything on display without ever overexposing it. As a bonus, there are several shots in the film that are immediately re-watchable; not scenes, mind you, but shots—of the baby, of Yochay, of Shira—that had me reaching for the pause button. The film's pace is also key; it is deliberate but never slow.
Burshtein's stars shine bright as well. Yaron is a pleasure to watch in this role. She is joyful when her future is limitless, yet properly measured given the weight of what rests on her character's shoulders. Klein portrays Yochay very well as a man who has been dealt what God wanted to deal him, and he accepts his fate with the right amount of melancholy and faith. The rest of the supporting cast is solid across the board, particularly Sheleg as Shira's desperate and manipulative mother.
Fill the Void is beautiful. Given the plot, it easily could have been treacly or melodramatic, or it could have pandered to a lowest common denominator so often found in Hollywood dramas. Instead, this seven-time Israeli Academy Award winner is tender and thoughtful, and delicate in its execution. More importantly, though, the film is incredibly reverent—not just to the Hassidic faith and its customs and tenets, but to the situation the characters find themselves in.
As for the technical presentation, the video transfer is a mixed blessing. Edges are soft throughout, which offers a nice ambiance in the film's many softly lit indoor scenes. However, once there is significant light, whether as part of a daytime exterior or while indoors near a window, and particularly against white objects, there is noticeable washout. This not only held true on my HD set, but also on my Macbook Pro. On the other hand, the audio is wonderfully clear, right down to the sound of one bride's crunching taffeta as she rocks nervously before her big moment. This might sound odd, but even on foreign films, when I can't understand a thing the people are saying, I still like that their voices are distinct. They are here. Also, the singing of rich religious songs is a pleasure to hear and relies heavily on harmony. The audio track allows for distinct voices to be heard during these songs.
There are two extras: a commentary track and a Q&A featurette. The commentary track features star Yaron and director Burshtein offering standard commentary fare: memories of scenes, reasons for decisions, on-set anecdotes, and the like. In interesting contrast, Burshtein is very tactical in her approach to comments, while Yaron is more the wide-eyed ingenue, marveling at her experience and even asking permission to reveal things that had been deleted from the final cut.
The Q&A was filmed after a theatrical screening and is edited down to about 17 minutes for this disc. It's hosted by a moderator and features the director and star onstage in front of the rolling credits, fielding audience questions. Thankfully, those questions appear as title cards. Burshtein offers interesting insight into filming the Hasidic community and other challenges that are so unique to this particular film.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
My only regret—and this is personal—is that Burshtein speaks to two specific scenes in the film that were left to interpretation by the viewer: a note written by Shira near the end of the film and the final scene that startlingly cuts to black. Once Burshtein had elaborated on each of these, I wished I hadn't heard her explanations; the scenes were better left for the viewer to mull over.
Fill the Void uses a fictional tale to offer captivating insight into a culture many of us know nothing about, yet it does so without calling attention to itself. At times heartbreaking and always heartfelt, the film maintains a high level of sincerity and genuineness because it never attempts to manipulate emotions. It's on display for you to watch, not begging you to look at it.
This verdict needs no arrangement. Not guilty. L'chaim!
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