Tuesday 5 December 2017

From the archive: "Fill the Void"

With Fill the Void, the writer-director Rama Burshtein leads us inside a world that might initially seem as alien to us heathens as anything delineated in, say, Battlefield Earth. Yet here the dreadlocks belong to the Orthodox Jews of modern-day Tel Aviv, and it’s clear Burshtein is operating her camera as a translation device, attempting to explain Haredi rules and rituals to a wider audience – those related to matters of the heart, in particular. Burshtein’s film opens with a young woman and her mother being directed via telephone to scope out a possible suitor in a supermarket’s dairy aisle; shortly thereafter, we see this same young woman, Shira (Hadas Yaron), deep in conversation with a contemporary about the man to whom the latter is being hitched. “He landed yesterday,” she notes. “We met from seven to 10.15.” “What’s he like?,” asks Shira. “He’s all right,” comes the bathetic response.

Clearly, marriage in these parts, though negotiated by all parties and therefore not technically arranged, is still guided more by practicality than passion – a situation further pointed up after Shira’s sister dies during labour, and our heroine finds herself being pushed by the community’s elders to marry her own brother-in-law, in order to help raise this widower’s offspring. The film’s project isn’t completely without precedent: there are similarities here with 2011’s Corpo Celeste, Alice Rohrwacher’s much-admired drama about a young girl’s initiation into Catholicism, which – to use a cross-denominational metaphor – succeeded in translating some arcane theological considerations into the daily bread of its recognisably flesh-and-blood characters. Fill the Void is, if anything, more even-handed yet about a way of life to which its director is evidently closely tied.

Shira’s predicament is presented as both extreme yet extremely logical, and you sense the filmmaker striving to identify the one character who might be a good and lasting match for this girl – bringing her in line with the matchmakers-in-chief of countless mainstream romcoms. (The director has cited Jane Austen as one of her inspirations, and it shows through.) A notable obstacle appears when Shira learns the dead wife had previously nominated another (older) woman to take her place in the event of any tragedy – leaving the highly expressive Yaron to suggest how our young-seeming heroine has had considerable responsibility heaped upon her, and how she may just be strong and mature enough to either bear it, or shrug it off altogether. Burshtein charts this process with impressive economy, both in her shot selection (close-ups that carry the story’s emotional weight) and editing, while using the rituals at the film’s centre to better describe those at the fringes of this universe: the women who’ve gone unmarried, the men themselves left behind, by bereavement or some other misfortune. When Shira ends up sharing a lift with the chap from the dairy aisle, it’s a poignant reminder of a path not taken – and another example of Burshtein’s facility for tapping the universal emotions beneath a very specific set of prayers and chants.

(MovieMail, December 2013)

Fill the Void screens on Channel 4 tonight at 3.45am.

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