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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

‘Void’ questions traditions

Hadas Yaron, center, portrays Shira in “Fill the Void.”
Roger Moore McClatchy-Tribune

“Fill the Void” is an intimate, sensitive portrait of life, love, tragedy and tradition within the world of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox Jews. Writer-director Rama Burshtein turns her camera on her own community and presents a tender look at people bound by faith, ritual and traditional gender roles.

The story Burshtein tells reveals not just the patriarchy – where rabbis, fathers and matchmakers decide who marries whom – but the female power behind that insular “man’s world.”

Shira (Hadas Yaron) is 18, marriage age. Her mother (Irit Sheleg) fairly obsesses over this, with anxious calls to a matchmaker and furtive “check out this guy” treks to the supermarket where they can eyeball a potential mate without him knowing it.

All mama Rivka wants is a guy like the man her oldest daughter Esther (Renana Raz) married – a “good man” of the faith who will provide for her and keep her close to home. Rivka’s wishes become paramount when Esther dies in childbirth. There’s a grandchild to care for and dote over. Yochay (Yiftach Klein) cannot raise the baby himself. He’ll need to remarry, perhaps to someone far away. And that sets a grief-stricken Rivka to scheming.

Yaron, sort of a younger Greta Gerwig look-alike, plays Shira as a mature-for-her-age 18-year-old. But not that mature. She’s indecisive. And she’s not a young woman willing to marry her brother-in-law, which is her mother’s plan. That’s “too close,” Shira thinks. That’s “too Old Testament,” the rest of us think. Yochay, who might have been the villain of this tale, is slow to warm to the idea as well.

As much as this community allows, Shira speaks her mind: “This isn’t right.” She can seem flighty, which is age-appropriate. Her sadness and indecision truly come through in the music she lapses into as she plays accordion for the local school where she works.

She’s under the influence not just of her nagging mother, but of her armless spinster aunt (Razia Israeli) who long ago took to wearing the married woman’s head scarf “just to stop the embarrassing questions,” and of sad spinster-to-be Frieda (Hila Feldman), who figures she would be the right one to step in for the dead Esther.

Burshtein, whose film was Israel’s submission for this year’s Best Foreign Language Film Oscar (it’s in Hebrew with English subtitles), maintains the mystery of the story as she delicately films the people and traditions of this closed community. The men, with their beards, archaic head wear and uniform dark clothing, meet and sing and negotiate and plan. And the women serve tea and sit awaiting the men’s decisions – some of which the women have themselves set in motion.

Burshtein’s sharply observed film misses many opportunities to make broader statements on this subculture and refuses to pass judgment on it, no matter how limiting the life can look to an outsider. “Fill the Void’s” greatest virtue is in the ways her characters take us beyond stereotypes, even as she questions the value system of a culture that is so focused on religion, marriage and procreation that it holds few attractions to those not born into it.