Review: Fill the Void (2012)

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Cast: Hadas Yaron, Yiftach Klein, Irit Sheleg
Director: Rama Burshtein
Country: Israel
Genre: Drama
Official Trailer: Here


Editor’s Notes: Fill the Void opens in limited release on Friday, May 24th. If you’ve already seen the film we’d love to hear your thoughts on it, or if you’re looking forward to seeing it this weekend, please tell us in the comments section below or in our new Next Projection Forums.

It’s immediately tempting to compare Fill the Void, the attention-grabbing first film from Israeli director Rama Burshtein, with Cristian Mungiu’s Beyond the Hills, also released this year. Both films, after all, concern themselves with the microcosmic machinations of religious orthodoxy: Burshtein’s with Haredi Jews in Tel Aviv; Mungiu’s with Eastern Orthodox Christians in Romania. Where Beyond the Hills offers an exterior view of its subject, however, filtered through the sceptical eyes of its outsider director, Fill the Void presents Burshtein’s insider view. Herself a member of the community she here depicts, converted twenty years ago, she offers a remarkable—perhaps even unique—look at a world with which most viewers will be entirely unfamiliar.

It’s a commendable undertaking, and one which—regardless of faith—is worthy of great respect for its frankness and conviction.

fill3Having lived a secular life for her first 25 years, Burshtein aims with this film to overturn the reductive image of Haredim life the majority of outsiders maintain, presenting its facts plainly and never presuming to reach conclusions on her audience’s behalf. She demonstrates remarkable restraint in exhibiting such objectivity: given that the critical would undoubtedly impose sensationalist spin on this story of an eighteen year old girl encouraged to marry her sister’s widower in order to maintain a familial connection with the baby whom she died delivering, Burshtein might be expected to mount a defensive argument to the contrary, yet all she sees fit to do is present the reality as it is. It’s a commendable undertaking, and one which—regardless of faith—is worthy of great respect for its frankness and conviction.

That conviction is essential to the success of Burshtein’s aims of meeting a sceptical audience’s gaze: enforcing as it does traditional gender roles, Haredim culture might be—and indeed often is—seen as oppressive, ostensibly relegating women to domestic roles while the men make the society’s important decisions. Keenly disavowing this misconception, or at least its excesses, the film points constantly and very wittily to the realities of the matter, contrasting the women’s shrewd management of the household finances with the men’s recruitment to advise a panicked old lady which cooking appliance she should buy. Such amusing observations permeate the narrative, which Burshtein allows to play out like it would in any other culture, effectively normalising what might seem to many an entirely alien way of life, not least of all when she makes abundantly clear that the decision to marry or not—like her own to convert—is made entirely freely.

… for all the good toward which Burshtein attracts our attention, she is not blind to the truth that this society does have its lamentable restrictions. These people are not the strictly controlled individuals we might assume, but nor of course do they lead some idealistic existence.

fill4The determined objectivity with which this community is presented, it should be noted, does not refrain Burshtein from sharing its wonders, which—objectively speaking—are wonderful indeed. A warm musicality characterises many of the scenes, the protagonist’s skill with an accordion paired with the faint glow that defines the film’s aesthetic to make more than one sequence of entrancing beauty. Yet just as it indicates the rich culture of the community, the accordion equally attests potential reservations: asked by a friend whether she enjoys playing, the teenaged bride-to-be can only reply with “I don’t know any other instrument”, a sure sign that, for all the good toward which Burshtein attracts our attention, she is not blind to the truth that this society does have its lamentable restrictions. These people are not the strictly controlled individuals we might assume, but nor of course do they lead some idealistic existence.

In its magnificent closing shot, calling to mind A Separation in the astonishing power it wields to force the audience to critically engage with the film to which they have just borne witness, Fill the Void summates the impressive effect exuded throughout its running time, achieving precisely Burshtein’s aims to encourage the spectator to reassess the way they view this way of life. In a sense, it’s a remarkably selfless act, abandoning the potential of inherently great storytelling in favour of a quasi-documentary insight into the machinations of a community many have wrongly misjudged. Burshtein has made a film that preaches not the furtherance of her own orthodox beliefs, but rather simple understanding of and tolerance for just what those beliefs are. Beyond the Hills, through its rousing anger and impassioned cinematic discourse, infuriated with its image of the ills misdirected religion can cause. Fill the Void, calm and cool by contrast, seeks only to demonstrate how, when left to its own unobtrusive devices, it can be quite harmless too. Arguably it’s Burshtein who’s managed the greater feat.

[notification type=”star”]78/100 ~ GOOD. Fill the Void wields an astonishing power to force the audience to critically engage with the film to which they have just borne witness.[/notification]

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About Author

Ronan Doyle is an Irish freelance film critic, whose work has appeared on Indiewire, FilmLinc, Film Ireland, FRED Film Radio, and otherwhere. He recently contributed a chapter on Arab cinema to the book Celluloid Ceiling, and is currently entangled in an all-encompassing volume on the work of Woody Allen. When not watching movies, reading about movies, writing about movies, or thinking about movies, he can be found talking about movies on Twitter. He is fuelled by tea and has heard of sleep, but finds the idea frightfully silly.