by David Holzel
Shira Mendelman is an 18-year-old with a decision to make. We first see her in the dairy section of a supermarket, where she’s covertly watching a prospective bridegroom.
“This is it,” she later tells her older sister, Esther. “I’m so excited I could scream.”
“Screaming isn’t modest,” Esther reminds her.
Far from being repressive, in the world of Tel Aviv Chasidim depicted in writer and director Rama Burshtein’s debut film, Fill the Void, outward modesty and faithfulness only heighten one’s experience of life.
Soon after Shira’s trip to the supermarket, the holiday of Purim arrives. In the middle of the revelry, the pregnant Esther collapses and soon dies in childbirth. Esther’s husband, Yochay, is left to father the baby boy. But the child needs a mother, and sooner than he wishes, Yochay arranges to wed a widow in Belgium.
Esther and Shira’s mother can’t bear the thought of losing her grandson in addition to her daughter. So she proposes to Yochay that he marry Shira.
Now Shira needs to decide whether to marry a man her own age whom she likes, or do her duty to her family and marry Yochay. Fill the Void, which opens in the Washington area next month, is Shira’s journey toward her decision.
“It’s a love story,” Burshtein says in an interview. “It’s about feelings. It’s about pain. It’s about choices.”
Hadas Yaron, 22, who plays Shira in her first leading film role, describes her character’s experience as a journey into her own depths.
“She experiences something intense – the death of her sister, preparing to get married. Then she gets to something deeper than looking at a boy in a supermarket and saying, ‘This is my man.’ ”
Burshtein, 45, grew up as a secular Israeli. Some 20 years ago she was drawn to religion. In Fill the Void, she portrays her community “not in a negative way, but in a complicated, true way.”
But ultra-Orthodox Jews are not the film’s target audience. She made Fill the Void for a general audience, which will likely respond to the story as a romance, she says. That’s a narrative language her own characters lack.
“Imagine, [Shira’s] 18 years old. She’s never read Jane Austen novels. She’s never seen Hollywood movies. She has no sense of the words for what she’s feeling. The center of the film is her heart.”
So instead of the language of romance, there’s the hidden journey, hinted at by the crucial event of Esther’s death falling on Purim. Purim is the holiday of hiddenness, of secrets, in which the true meanings are found below the surface.
As Yochay, actor Yiftach Klein smolders. But Burshtein says the conventional sexiness of the characters and the situation they find themselves in is not the main point.
“I would never do anything that’s not sexy,” she says. “But the sexiness is in the restraint. They’re containing the passion. It’s very Jewish, to have control.”
That’s the power behind what Burshtein calls the “almost kiss scene” between Yochay and Shira. As she showed Klein his marks for the scene, she told him, “You really want to touch her. But you won’t. Let yourself feel it.”
Feeling the full complexity of emotions but not necessarily acting on them is central to understanding the world of the film. “What your character says is not necessarily what she’s going through,” Yaron says. “You have to go deeper.”
Fill the Void was Israel’s submission for the Academy Award’s Best Foreign Language Film for 2012. It was shown at film festivals in Toronto, New York and Venice, where Yaron won best actress in 2012.
Ultimately the film belongs to Yaron’s Shira. She is the focus of Fill the Void’s extended final scene, newly married, enveloped in the layers of her white dress, light suffused, open and vulnerable. It is a moment of intense intimacy as well-wishers arrive and place written prayers into her hands.
“I remember feeling that something mysterious and deep and real was going on,” Yaron says of the day they filmed the scene. “The notes I have are like prayers. You have to pray for them because you have the power.”
It’s a power conferred on a woman who knows she has made the right decision.
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