Given the socioreligiously loaded subject matter, discussing Fill the Void feels like tiptoeing through a minefield. To hear writer-director Rama Burshtein tell it, the film’s raison d’etre is to give voice to her ultra-Orthodox Hasidic community, providing at last an insider’s view to what has been a commonly closed community. The story is straightforward enough on its face: eighteen-year-old Shira (Hadas Yaron) faces pressure—mostly from her mother (Irit Sheleg)—to marry the husband (Yiftach Klein) of Shira’s recently deceased sister.
Unfortunately, the pace and mood with which Burshtein develops her story could be fairly described as dirge-like, with a couple of wry exceptions of “observational humor.” The action begins in a supermarket, where a would-be matchmaker points out a potential husband in the dairy section. Later, an elderly woman relies upon the kindness of her rabbi for help in buying a stove.
The rest of Fill the Void—comprised entirely of conversation after conversation about who’ll marry whom—can be terminally dull, like some kind of purgatorial coffee klatsch to which outsiders have been mistakenly invited. One take on the film is that Burshtein refuses to judge (or overstate); another is that she is too close to the material to be productively critical of the culture on display, resulting in a “Hallmark Hall of Fame” simplicity.
In her “Director’s Notes,” Burshtein also attempts to contextualize the film as an homage to Jane Austen. “I love Jane Austen,” Burshtein writes. “She's romantic, intelligent, and full of humor…The parallel is also quite obvious in that Fill the Void takes place in a world where the rules are rigid and clear. The characters are not looking for some way to burst out of that world. Instead, they are trying to find a way to live within it.” Fair enough, but unlike, say, Pride and Prejudice’s intentional Elizabeth Bennett, Shira doesn’t much seem “a rational creature speaking the truth from her heart.”
Rather, Shira comes across as temperamentally battered by her mother and her potential husband, who is himself slow to see the wisdom of marrying Shira. Especially in our time of politically correct sensibilities, the meaning of the film and the degree to which Shira makes a choice free of duress will be in the eye of the beholder, but in being so respectful of ultra-Orthodox tradition, including de facto arranged marriages, Burshtein appears to be drinking the anti-feminist Kool-Aid. The film is undeniably a celebration of community, but on Shira, one gets the disturbing whiff of Stockholm Syndrome.
In an early scene, when Shira feels like screaming, she’s told, “Scream to God.” The entire film is suffused with a pale glow that implies the omnipresence of God, working through the narrative to protect and guide the community to an implied good fate. The film’s seeming moral? God is good, your mother is good, and put your unconditional trust in them.
Indeed, the film gives the mother the last word, just before a title card dedicating the film to Burshtein’s husband (or does it all amount to a stealth unhappy ending, the equivalent of the old fortune-cookie gag “Help! I’m Being Held Prisoner in a Chinese Bakery”?). It’s odd to say, but one suspects Fill the Void, like its heroine, would be better off by being confidently selfish.