Israeli director Rama Burshtein’s powerfully moving Fill the Void (original title, “Lemale et ha’halal”), Israel’s submission to the 2012 Oscars, is about love and marriage but, in the Orthodox Hasidic community in Tel Aviv, they do not necessarily go together like a horse and carriage. Hadas Yaron, winner of the Best Actress Award at the Venice Film Festival in her first film role, is eighteen year-old Shira who is very close to being matched and promised to a local young man. When her older sister Esther (Renana Raz) dies in childbirth, however, her husband, the striking-looking Yochay (Yiftak Klein), is left to raise his young son Mordecai by himself and, according to tradition, has a duty to remarry once the formal mourning period is over.
This is where the central dilemma of Fill the Void presents itself and Shira’s choice to “do the right thing” is severely tested by conflicting loyalties. After her family celebrates the Jewish holiday Purim, Shira and her mother, Rivka (Irit Sheleg) in a scene with Woody Allen overtones, are sent by the matchmaker to “shop” in the supermarket to find a suitable husband. When the right man is found, arrangements are made, even though Shira does not actually meet the young man until later in the film. When her mother learns that Yochay has a marriage offer from a widow living in Belgium, however, and cannot face the idea of the baby being taken away, she asks the matchmaker Mr. Shtreicher (Michael David Weigl) to arrange for Shira to marry Yochai, who is ten years older.
Fill the Void is a heartfelt and intimate look inside a world few of us ever have contact with. Sensitive to the orthodox community’s rituals and traditions, however anachronistic they may seem to us, there is a feeling behind the rituals that binds people together and produces a feeling of closeness in the community, underscored by the rhythmic chants and joyous celebrations of special occasions. Though the purpose of every girl is to be married may seem offensive, in the culture in which it takes place, it is not demeaning, and the film does not stand in judgment of its characters or of the community.
As director Rama Buhrstein, a member of the Orthodox community herself, describes the film, “It’s not about being an anthropologist or about religion or secularism. Rather, it’s about the heart.” Shira is asked to choose between her sense of duty to her family and community and her desire to fulfill her own dreams. Throughout the process, however, she is not alone and is always surrounded by love and support from mothers, fathers, aunts, rabbis, even though their advice may be conflicting. Her affectionate Aunt Hanna (Razia Israeli), who never married because of a disability, encourages Shira to do what is right for herself, putting her at odds with her mother.
Shira’s older unwed cousin Frieda (Hila Feldman) tells her that it was Esther’s wish that she marry Yochay if anything should happen to her, a proposition Yochay rebels at. Sensing Shira’s confusion and uncertainty about marrying Yochay, however, the chief Rabbi (Melech Thal) refuses to bless the marriage. It’s one of many emotions that seem to be happening all at the same time in Fill the Void, but even so, the resolution of the conflict is poignant and even beautiful and it all comes together in a memorable final shot.