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Review: 'Fill The Void' An Orthodox Jewish Romance Caught Awkwardly Between Comedy & Melodrama

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by Oliver Lyttelton
May 21, 2013 6:20 PM
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"Fill The Void"

After a Cannes Film Festival which attracted criticism for including no female directors whatsoever, new Venice Film Festival head Alberto Barbera seems to be having bit of a dig at his Gallic rivals with his first year in charge. In the official selection alone, there are four female directors or co-directors, and plenty more in the various sidebars. Perhaps most notably are some from the Middle East. “Wadjda” is the first film ever made in Saudi Arabia, and that it’s made by a female director, Haifaa Al Mansour, in a country not known for its acceptance of women in positions of power is rather extraordinary (word is the film’s pretty good too: unfortunately, other commitments kept us from seeing it here, but we plan to catch up elsewhere.)

On a very different tack, there’s “Fill The Void,” or “Lemale Et Ha’Chalalal,” the first film from New York-born filmmaker Rama Burshtein, who is a member of the Orthodox Jewish community in Israel. Burshtein has devoted most of the last 20 years teaching and making film in that world, but here makes her international feature debut with a curious comedy-drama that has its strengths, but ultimately proves somewhat disappointing.

In Tel Aviv in the present day, Shira (Hadas Yaron), daughter of rabbi Aharon (Chaim Sharir) has just turned eighteen and is in the earliest stages of being matched with a man that, if all goes well, she’ll be married to (although she hasn’t met him yet.) Her older sister Esther (Ranana Raz), has been married to Yochay (Yiftach Klein) for a few years, and is about to give birth to her first child. Tragically Esther dies in childbirth, leaving a distraught Yochay to care for the baby alone.

There’s pressure from the community for him to remarry soon and a potential match soon emerges, a widow with two children of her own, who lives in Belgium. Fearing the prospect of her grandchild being moved away, Esther’s mother Ritka (Irit Sheleg) suggests that he marries Shira instead.

It’s essentially a sort of Jane Austen-ish marriage plot – will Shira give into the wishes of her family and marry Yochay, who’s warming to the idea? Or will she let her brother-in-law take her nephew to Belgium so she can find a more suitable match, someone closer to her own age, as her independently-minded great-aunt Hanna advocates? At the start at least, the premise is quite promising.

As you might expect, Burshtein has a real eye for the world and its rituals, allowing the camera to see things that can’t have been seen by too many outsiders. There’s a real warmth and humanity to the characters established in the early stages, from Shira gossiping about her prospective match, to her father giving out money to those with troubles at Purim (his relationship with local widower Mr. Shtrecher [Michael David Weigl] is a particularly touching note.) Across the film, the characters are well drawn and complex, be it Yochay, who sneaks out for cigarettes every so often, or Ritka, whose ambivalence about what she asks her daughter to do subtly shines through.

It’s a shame then, that the narrative the characters are given isn’t quite so successful. Tonally, the film awkwardly straddles fluffy comedy and grief-stricken melodrama, hopping from one mode to other scene to scene. The comedy is often charming, and far more successful than the more sombre, slightly inelegantly-written melodrama, but it’s the way the two butt together that really sinks the picture – the laughs come at the expense of the stakes of the drama, and the more serious moments make it tougher to laugh at the comedy.

Technically, too, Burshtein has a lot of room for improvement. The whole film is shot (on what looks like RED cameras) with a sickly, overlit soft-focus sheen that makes it look like a dream sequence in a Lifetime movie, and while some of her shot compositions are strong, it  become borderline unwatchable at times. The film’s also scored by curious, barbershop/a capella versions of traditional Jewish prayers; they are bouncy enough, but they also manage to undermine the drama fairly successfully.

The inherent contradictions in the film’s sheer existence are kind of interesting – Burshtein writes in her director’s statement that “Love and relationships form the main object of my interests. To be honest, careerism, independence, and self-fulfillment are less important to me than love, my husband and my family,” and without giving it away too much, that’s something that’s reflected in her film itself. It rankled at first, but there’s certainly a kind of courage in the way the film unabashedly follows this argument, even if we wouldn’t advocate it ourselves. Even that makes the film qualify only as a curio really – for the most part the filmmaking isn’t good enough to elevate it into anything more. [C-]

This is a reprint of our review from the 2012 Venice Film Festival. "Fill The Void" opens on Friday.

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