Last weekend, while most American moviegoers were checking out the pecs of the Man of Steel, I was watching the tribulations of people dressed in equally oddball outfits. These would be members of a devout Jewish community (long black coats, long sidecurls, and big fur hats for men; long skirts and elaborate headcoverings for women) who take it on faith that everyone ought to be married. Fill the Void, from Israel’s burgeoning film industry, has won several international awards. Unlike most of Israel’s acclaimed recent films (for instance, Beaufort and Waltz with Bashir), it has nothing to do with war, terrorism, or politics—unless you count the politics of matching the right bride to the right groom.
Rama Burshtein, though born in New York, studied filmmaking in Israel, at a time when she was becoming religiously observant. For decades, she has been writing, directing, and producing films tailored to the needs of Orthodox Jewry. Some of these films, in keeping with traditional Judaism’s strict rules about modesty and the separation of the sexes, were designed for women only. Though Fill the Void appeals to a much wider audience, it has nothing but respect for the beliefs and social mores of the closed community it so faithfully depicts.
I’m told Burshtein is a Jane Austen fan. Austen’s world, like Burshtein’s, is a circumscribed place in which marriage is central and matchmaking is an activity of great consequence. We tend to think of Jane Austen (Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility) as a comic writer, but her delicate novels do not overlook the possibility of bad judgment, bad luck, and heartache. Her central characters quietly suffer, but they learn to make do, and sometimes are rewarded with their hearts’ desire. So it is with Fill the Void’s eighteen-year-old Shira. As the film opens, she’s in a supermarket with her mother, excitedly stealing a glimpse of the bridegroom-to-be a matchmaker has promised. But soon tragedy strikes: her older sister suddenly dies, leaving a newborn baby. And through the elaborate maneuverings that are part and parcel of this community’s social life, she discovers she herself is being proposed as the “beshert” (predestined mate) of her sister’s handsome but needy widower.
Fill the Void was workshopped at the Sundance Institute, which crafted this official description: “A devout 18-year-old Israeli is pressured to marry the husband of her late sister. Declaring her independence is not an option in Tel Aviv's ultra-Orthodox Hasidic community, where religious law, tradition and the rabbi's word are absolute.” These phrases make Shira sound like a modern young woman in revolt against her elders. But such is hardly the case. Shira, a true daughter of her community, yearns—like the girls around her—for the day when she can announce, “I am a bride.” But her complicated feelings regarding her dead sister, her unwed friends, her much-older suitor, and her own submerged sexuality result in a tangle that only the rebbe can put to rights.
As is typical in such communities, the rebbe (a sort of local chief rabbi) is the man to whom everyone turns in time of crisis. This plays out comically when a distraught old woman bursts into his study to demand help in choosing a new stove. In matters of the heart, too, the rebbe can be counted on for commonsense wisdom. He, like all the characters in this film, is treated with dignity. It’s rare to see a movie about a fundamentalist sect that does not condescend to its characters. And it’s rare to be allowed inside the walls of this fascinating world.