One of the great appeals of cinema is the ease with which viewers can journey to far-away lands and foreign cultures. The best movies provide a satisfying measure of truth along with the shock of recognition: As different as people can be, they are far more alike than not. In that regard the new Israeli film “Fill the Void” ranks high. It probes deeply into the joys, customs and pain of a Hasidic Jewish family living in Tel Aviv.
The central tragedy comes early.
A young married woman dies in labor, leaving her husband a widower with an infant. The woman’s 18-year-old younger sister is in line to be married next, but after the tragedy, her father breaks off her engagement.
The girl is Shira Mandelman, played by Hadas Yaron, and her performance – which won the Best Actress award at last year’s Venice Film Festival – is central to the movie, as she grieves, resumes her life and is gradually drawn to her brother-in-law, Yochay. He is a frequent visitor to the Mandelman household, dropping off the baby when he goes out to study or work. Eventually Yochay begins to feel the need to remarry, if only to have a mother to care for his son, and is tempted by the prospect of an arranged marriage to a woman he barely knows who lives in Belgium. The thought of seeing her grandson move so far away devastates Shira’s mother. “Pray for me to have the strength to survive this,” she laments. In desperation she suggests to Shira that she should marry Yochay.
In a scene fraught with tension, Shira and Yochay meet to discuss a situation with which neither is comfortable. “Why marry me?” he asks her, and she demurs, finally responding, “Because it is the right thing to do.”
But she is not convincing enough, and her reluctance registers with the rabbi from whom she seeks permission to marry. He asks her how she feels about Yochay. “It is not a matter of feelings,” she responds, to which he says, “It is only a matter of feelings.” Convinced that Shira is going through with the marriage only to placate her mother, the rabbi refuses to approve the match.
The subsequent courtship between Shira and Yochay is the heart of the movie: Whether they can become comfortable with the idea of really loving one another; what love means in an arranged marriage; and whether it can fill the void left by tragedy and misfortune.
The movie was written and directed by Rama Burshstein, and it is the first time an Orthodox Jewish woman has made a movie about the Orthodox community for worldwide distribution. She has noted in interviews that she set out to give her Hasidic characters a humanity beyond the usual stereotypes. “It was very important for me to say that we [all] just exist and feel and love and struggle and hurt by ourselves.”
Shakespeare wrote, from the perspective of another Jew, “If you prick us, do we not bleed?” Similarly, through the compassionate portrayal of the Mandelman family’s tragedy, “Fill the Void” finds the universal truths of suffering and redemption.