On the Bridal Path
Most movies vanish from your thoughts so quickly after you see them, so it's especially enjoyable to see a film like Rama Burshtein's moving and charming Fill the Void, which stays alive for the viewer long after the lights come up.
The movie has generated a huge amount of publicity, winning the Best Actress Award at the Venice International Film Festival for its young star, Hadas Yaron. It was purchased for distribution by Sony Pictures Classics (a rare and coveted feat for Israeli movies), won raves at the Toronto International Film Festival and the New York Film Festival, swept the Ophir Awards (Israel's Oscars) and received the top prize at the Haifa International Film Festival.
The good news is that it does live up to the hype, although some viewers may go in thinking they're about to see a haredi Citizen Kane, since the film is set among the ultra-Orthodox. But it's a small-scale movie, with a constant focus on the drama within a single family.
Director Rama Burshtein, born in New York and raised in Jerusalem, became Orthodox after completing her studies at Sam Spiegel Film School about 20 years ago. She spent years making films for a haredi audience and teaching, then decided to make this feature film. It focuses on the lowest-profile of all haredi communities in Israel, the one in Tel Aviv. The more you can wipe your mind clean of the ugliest images of the ultra-Orthodox in the news - men spitting on an eight-year-old girl in Beit Shemesh, men threatening women who refuse to move to the back of the bus, etc. - the more you can appreciate and enjoy this look at those who are simply living their lives and have nothing to do with these incidents.
The film tells the story of a family whose younger daughter, 18-yearold Shira (Hadas Yaron), is just starting the process of meeting young men so that she can marry.
Her older sister, Esther (Renana Raz), is married and pregnant with her first child. Shira is enthusiastic, even ecstatic, at the idea of getting married. This is a society in which marriage determines destiny, and so it harks back to the novels of Jane Austen and Edith Wharton, where the focus on marriage is central. While this may evoke a negative response in some viewers, it's important to note that the men's futures - yeshiva study and perhaps eventually giving religious counsel - are as firmly set and unvarying as the women's.
While their families have input into their choice of a spouse, it is the most critical decision that these young people will ever make. Shira is heady with her first opportunity to glimpse a young man - in a carefully planned moment in the dairy aisle of a supermarket - who may become her husband. She is eager to meet him. But later that day, when her sister dies giving birth, her future is put on hold.
Her mother (Irit Sheleg), devastated with grief, maps out a new choice for Shira: Marriage to her brother-in-law, Yochay (Yiftach Klein), who is contemplating a move to Belgium in order to marry a widow there.
This conflict sets off a delicate dance in which Shira, confused and upset, tries to placate her grieving family and follow her heart at the same time. She must also face the threat of the marginalization that happens to women who don't marry young.
The film is beautifully photographed and designed (the wardrobe is especially lovely), but what brings it to life are the performances by a uniformly outstanding cast. The jewel is Hadas Yaron, who is on screen in nearly every scene and who is utterly convincing and appealing as the sensitive heroine. Yiftach Klein is equally appealing and extremely sexy as the man who may hold the key to her fate.
While this may sound like heavy going, Burshtein's gift for storytelling brings out all the nuances and even the humor in story. While there will naturally be great interest in the ultra-Orthodox setting, what truly differentiates this film from so many others is the genuine suspense in the story. Burshtein keeps viewers on the edge of their seats more masterfully than many thriller directors as we root for Shira to choose the path that will make her happy.