Fill the Void begins with the greatest Purim sequence in the history of cinema. To be sure, there isn’t much competition. For Your Consideration and its movie-within-a-movie Home for Purim had that title up until now, and it’s perhaps the only other film ever to feature the holiday. However, I doubt Rama Burshtein had Christopher Guest in mind when she filmed the beginning of her first fiction feature. Francis Ford Coppola, on the other hand, hangs over every moment.
Burshtein plays Purim like the opening wedding in The Godfather, taking the time to carefully introduce the Hasidic community of Tel Aviv and its traditions. The head of the family sits at the table, taking requests from the younger men and handing out gobs of cash as holiday gifts. Like Coppola’s masterpiece, this tells us more about the insulation of this world than any confrontation with outsiders might. The camera winds about the house to present his wife, Rivka (Irit Sheleg), and two daughters, Esther (Renana Raz) and Shira (Hadas Yaorn). Esther is married to Yochai (Yiftach Klein), and is nine months pregnant with her first child. Shira is 18, and her parents are looking to find her a husband.
Brief glimpses of the tension between these women color the party, until its dramatic and tragic conclusion: Esther has taken ill in the bathroom. The baby survives, but Yochai is left a widower. It is this void, left by Shira’s elder sister, which the film seeks to fill. A dramatic beginning to a story which, while not as epic as The Godfather, has much to offer.
The plot takes many small twists and turns, as plans of marriage fly back and forth across this tight-knit community. Yet the central drama grows from a single possibility: should Shira marry Yochai to take her sister’s place and raise her nephew as his mother? In a world with overwhelming pressure for young women to settle down and raise a family, this dilemma becomes the only thing in Shira’s life.
Burshtein handles this crisis artfully, exploring the life of Hasidic women with warmth and detail. More than simply following individual characters, Fill the Void is replete with images of female space, from the closed balcony of the synagogue to the sitting room at home. There is evidence of domestic care in every room, carefully arranged glasses of orange juice and tea laid out for guests and each costume meticulously cared for. The women wear dresses that are somehow both flamboyant and restrained, a way to show their taste within a very restricted wardrobe.
This meticulous detailing extends to the music in the film. Male space in the community is represented through their singing, joining in chants both in the synagogue and around the table at home, in which the women do not take part. Their voices blend in prayer while their wives and daughters sit and watch in silence, occasionally swaying along. Burshtein has also chosen a particularly effective soundtrack, from her use of loud techno as a non-Hasidic Purim party echoes from outside to a cool yet perhaps ironic version of “If I forget you, O Jerusalem.”
By far the most memorable musical element in Fill the Void is Shira’s accordion. Rather than sing, like the men, Shira (which means “song” in Hebrew) rocks with her instrument. She gets lost in the sound, closing her eyes and traveling far off into her own peace while playing increasingly melancholic music. The accordion is an inspired choice, a sound that can relay sadness more honestly and richly than any other. Yet this young woman seems unable to even see her own relationship with music, her only respite from the anxiety of betrothal. When asked why she chose that particular instrument, she can only say “I can’t play anything else.” It is an attitude that cannot even be described as defeatist simply because it lacks even the slightest inclination of self-determination.
Importantly, however, Fill the Void is not a one-dimensional assault on the way the Hasidic Tel Aviv treats its young women. Burshtein, Hasidic herself, has illuminated a world more than she has condemned it. Care is taken to show characters with individuality and spirit, highlighting how impossible it is for even such a closed off community to be completely uniform. Shira has a disabled aunt with no arms, who covers the hair on her head even though she is unmarried in order to “avoid questions.” A lonely old women appears toward the end to petition the rabbi, as if to remind the men that not every woman is in the same position. This dedication to fully representing her family and society is what distinguishes Burshtein’s directing, and raises Fill the Void beyond a single and simple message.
The Upside: You will get lost in Shira’s accordion right along with her, dipping into some of the best music of the year in film. Also, the film ends with one of the best closing shots of the year.
The Downside: The will-she or won’t-she around the proposal with Yochai lasts a bit too long, and risks becoming dull rather than emotionally powerful.
On the Side: Fill the Void is Israel’s official submission to the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language film, already making it much more likely to snag an Oscar nomination than Home for Purim.