Rama Burshtein’s “Fill the Void,” Israel’s official Oscar entry earlier this year, is set in the Haredi Orthodox Jewish community in Tel Aviv. It focuses on one young woman’s turbulent experiences with traditional matchmaking -- a custom which, it should be noted, differs from arranged marriage, and is abundantly foreign to many of us Westerners. Yet Burshtein renders a portrait that is universal: of the necessity of choice, and its connection to putting away childish things.
Everything’s going well for 18-year-old Shira (Hadas Yaron). She’s been matched for marriage with a boy who sets butterflies aflutter in her tummy, at least upon her first fleeting glance of him in the dairy section of her local grocery store, and her sister, Esther, is pregnant with her first child. But when the unthinkable happens and Esther dies during childbirth, Shira is left at emotional -- and social -- loose ends. Shira and her family take care of Esther’s infant son while Esther’s widower, the impassive Yohai (Yiftach Klein), decides whether to remarry. Meanwhile, Shira’s once-rosy marriage prospects dry up, seemingly without explanation.
When it becomes apparent that Yohai’s most promising remarriage option would entail him moving with the baby to Belgium, Esther’s mother, Rivka, feels her grief is about to burst. First the loss of her daughter, and then her grandson. In a moment of quick-thinking desperation, she pitches the idea to Yohai of proposing to Shira. Yohai, Shira’s senior by probably 15 years, is ambivalent and initially noncommittal. Shira, when broached with the possibility, is stricken with guilt and extreme confusion. Yet time and familial pressure have ways of making outlandish possibilities come closer to reality, and Shira finds herself faced with the choice of either marrying her dead sister’s husband or risking the irrevocable separation of her family unit.
One of the most startling, fascinating aspects of “Fill the Void” is how it flies in the face of conventional Western trajectories of romance. If a romantic coupling is not at first ideal (a tenet of most romantic comedies), it eventually becomes so after Hollywood pixie dust is sprinkled on it. Here, director Burshtein is unwilling to let Shira’s decision become easier, even after she’s effectively made her decision. At a key moment in the film, Shira tells Yohai that to say yes to his proposal would be to give up her chance at first new love, and all the excitement and uncertainty that brings.
As she flip-flops back and forth on what to do, to the increasing aggravation of her parents and the downright misery of Yohai, who we sense has hardly had a moment to register his grief for Esther, Shira experiences the agony of being the sole person who holds everything in the balance. Yaron, who won the Best Actress prize at last year’s Venice Film Festival for “Fill the Void,” deftly communicates Shira’s predicament, where the unbearable thought of breaking her parents’ hearts is equaled only by the thought of breaking her own heart, slowly, if she enters into a marriage that could make her unhappy.
Burshtein shows a remarkable formal consistency as a first-time feature director, giving her actors and the shots in which she frames them the time and space to communicate pain and lingering confusion. The cinematography has the angelic, fuzzy lighting of a 1980s glamour photograph, which funnily enough fits with the clothing and interior designs we see within this Orthodox Jewish community. (We can tell, however, from the use of cell phones, that this isn’t a period piece, or at least not one that extends farther back than a decade ago.)
The use of soulful, even rapturous Hebrew music (set to the Psalm, “If I forget thee, Jerusalem”), with the brightly smudged lighting of the camera work, gives a dreamlike quality to “Fill the Void,” even though the problems the characters deal with are bluntly real. This is what ultimately leads me to believe that the film, for all the unhappiness it chronicles is ultimately -- and refreshingly -- a romance as delicate and moving as any I’ve seen on screen recently. At the heart of “Fill the Void” is the romance of reality, of compromise, of difficult choice, and finally, of embarking on an unknown journey to repair a family.
"Fill the Void" hits theaters in New York and Los Angeles on May 24, via Sony Pictures Classics.