Review: 'Fill the Void'

“Fill the Void” is a foreign film. Not a foreign language film, which is the more politically sensitive appellation used by awards-givers, but a foreign film. It is practically an ethnographic film.

It lifts the veil on the insular (if not secretive) ultra orthodox Jewish sect known as haredim in Hebrew or “those guys with the gigantic fur hats even in Summer” as they are sometimes called in New York. These are not ”Seinfeld” Jews, these are the fundamentalists who'd be just as at home (perhaps even happier?) in the 18th Century – or, at least, some of them would.

As with all microcultures, there are subdivisions within. Most ultra-orthodox religions maintain a strict gender divide, relegating women to second class citizenship. Some groups offer more wiggle room than others. “Fill the Void” (written and directed by Rama Burshtein, one such woman of the extreme religious community) tells a story where women have a bit of a say in the only important moment in their lives: deciding whom they will marry so they can become baby factories so that the Messiah will come.

“Fill the Void” is, in the worst sense of the word, a “women's picture,” in which people wring their hands and worry, wail and weep over marriage and maintaining the status quo. Shira, 18-years old, lovely and, possibly, an individual (she plays the accordion at a Kindergarten, which is at least unique) is of marrying age. Her older sister Esther, married to Yochai, is nine months pregnant and is quickly seen suffering from a bad case of Chekhov's abdominal pains. Soon she's dead, but the baby has survived, and everyone soon agrees that the obvious play is to have Yochai marry Shira.

Yochai is, at first, too heartbroken to consider it, but the only alternative is to take the baby off to marry a young widow in Belgium. But he doesn't want to take the baby from Esther's family (the father is a respected member of the community) and he agrees that Shira is a comely lass. However, the clock is ticking, and if Shira doesn't agree (or, at least, doesn't flatly refuse) the family will be shattered and no one will ever stop crying.

There's possibly another motivation for Yochai to stay. You'll never see any of the characters in “Fill the Void” go to or talk about work. That's because the Haredi community (a small but sizable minority in Israel) are subsidized by the government. That tidbit is left out of the film, but there are notable moments that contextualize this group. Unlike the depiction of the extreme orthodox Jerusalem neighborhood Mea Shearim in Gidi Dar's “Ushpizin” (or, I dunno, the Amish in Peter Weir's “Witness”) “Fill the Void” isn't set in a ghetto. Our characters live in modern Tel Aviv, and the few exterior moments, like watching Shira wait for a bus near people in modern dress, have a jarring effect.

Burshetin also exploits her unique point of view during the scene of the baby's ritual circumcision. The scene is shot from above, and viewers would be forgiven if they thought this was meant to portray a “God's eye view.” It is, actually, a “women's eye view,” as Orthodoxy refuses to permit women on the ground floor of a synagogue. This “back of the bus” rule has its defenders (without the distraction of the opposite sex, both genders can focus exclusively on God,) but most will agree this is just more fundamentalist oppression. To its credit “Fill the Void” merely shows, and does not proselytize.

Indeed, “Fill the Void”'s sole merit is its observational nature. While hardly documentary-style (it is far too maudlin for that) the endless scenes of cramped interiors, men bulked up in hats and coats chanting around the dinner table as the women sit quietly by, waiting to serve or clean, are quite fascinating. It's not that women are 100% excluded – they are present at all important discussions and are allowed to give their opinions without fear of being rebuked – but they are strangely complicity in perpetuating their place in the world. Call it brainwashing, call it the bliss of a predetermined hierarchy, just call it far the hell away from me.

To less progressive-leaning members of the audience, perhaps, “Fill the Void” will touch the heart with its striking performances, mood-driven moments and behind-the-scenes look at a curious lifestyle. Dramatically, it is about as subtle as the silent film version of “The Jazz Singer,” though there are occasional moments of levity. A big sit-down audience with the Chief Rabbi is interrupted by a confused, elderly widow requiring guidance on which kind of stove to buy. Her dilemma is treated with kindness and respect and, in about sixty seconds, shows a positive side to the tight-knit community living that only exists in 2013 among the religious fringes. Perhaps “Fill the Void” isn't quite the unbiased ethnographic film after all.

SCORE: 6.5 / 10