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Review: FILL THE VOID (Lemale et ha'halal)

FILL THE VOID (Lemale et ha'halal)

FILL THE VOID (Lemale et ha'halal) , ISRAEL , 2013 , MPAA Rating : PG for mild thematic elements and brief smoking

Nora Burshstein’s FILL THE VOID has already been compared to a Jane Austen novel, and the observation, while counter-intuitive at first glance, is highly astute. While Austen’s world of Regency England may not seem to have much in common with a community of modern Hassids in Israel, the delicate but strict play of custom and convention figure tremendously in both venues. Things are done in particular ways that are accepted in the same way that air is breathed, wine is drunk, and people fall in love. One may chafe a bit, but one does not stray from the norm, but, like Austen, Burshstein finds a dynamic, compelling universe in this structure, using it to reveal the complicated, sometimes irrational workings of the human heart in all its messy glory.


As is true of Hassidic life, the metaphysical is never far from the mundane, and Burshtein emphasizes that in every frame, from the glowing light that fills the modest rooms filled with the sounds of an apple being peeled, or of the steam rising from a bowl of soup offered to a guest. The babble of the outside world rarely intrudes the sanctified quiet that is filled, instead, with the closeness of community, where ritual phrases have heartfelt feelings behind them, and where no one is ever quite alone, while never quite being deprived of individuality. To the contrary, there is a palpable element of respect, even if gender roles are sharply defined, neither is demeaning in the sight of the other, and all act accordingly. Though circumscribed, there is room for variation, as with Shira’s aunt, who has never married, but is no less respected for it having been her choice to reject her one suitor. This is a life of meaning and purpose, perhaps not for everyone, but for those for whom it works, a heaven on earth.


Yet there is pain, of course, and it is the beginning of a love story of monumental import. During the Purim festival, eighteen-year-old Shira is scoping out a potential husband at the local grocery store. Sent by the matchmaker, she and her mother secretly observe him in the dairy section, a good-looking young man whose side-locks could be curled better, and whose demeanor is like that of any Yeshiva boy not yet quite grown to manhood. Shira (Hadas Yaron) likes what she sees, and since the purpose of every girl is to be married, she finds the potential match acceptable without having met the young man yet. That will come later with a formal introduction. Shades of Austen, indeed. All such festival plans are put on hold when Shira’s beloved sister, Esther (Renana Raz) dies in childbirth, leaving her brother-in-law, Yochay (Yiftach Klein) with an infant and a duty to remarry once the formal mourning period is over. Re-marriage is not negotiable, despite his grief at losing Esther, but the choice of new wife is, and the only acceptable offer he receives is from a family in Belgium. Shira’s mother, Rivka (Irit Sheleg) is heartbroken anew at the thought of her grandson being taken so far away, but in a moment of chance or revelation, she watches Yochai and Shira tending to baby Mordechai, and a plan is born. And it’s not an unusual one, for a man to marry his late wife’s sister, though no one mentions this to Shira until Riva has convinced everyone else.


Here is where Burshtein finds exactly the right tone. There is never a question that Shira will not have a say in her future, despite wanting to please her family. Yochay is someone she has known for years, and with whom she has meaningful conversations, a fact contrasted by an uncomfortable meeting she has with another potential husband closer to her own age, who is solid but hopelessly dull in comparison. That Klein is an actor of staggering good looks and an indefinably potent charisma undiminished by the traditional Hassidic wardrobe. This allows Yaron to soar, as the actress gives a performance of power and depth that has the suspense of the best thriller while she negotiates guilt, elation, hope, and disappointment as Yochay never quite finds the right words with which to court Shira, telling her what he thinks she wants to hear, and she making the same mistake.


FILL THE VOID is an exquisite, poetic film that is full of both the joy of life, even in grief, and in the fact that life inevitably goes on.

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