Fill the Void (2012)


Director:  Rama Burshtein
Cast:  Hadas YaronYiftach KleinIrit Sheleg
Plot:  A young Hasidic Jewish woman is pressured into an arranged levirate marriage to an older widower.

Genre:  Drama
Awards:  Won Best Actress and nom. for Golden Lion (Venice Film Festival).
Runtime:  90min
Rating:  PG for mild thematic elements and brief smoking.

Screened as part of the Israel Film Festival 2013.

I have seen some Israeli films over the last few years to understand that they can be quite culturally specific.  Two years ago, it was Footnote (2011), the Joseph Cedar film that earned an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film.  That told a story about the dramatic rivalry between father and son, both experts in Talmudic Studies. 

While deftly-written, it suffered somewhat because of inconsistencies in tone, and dealt with Israeli academia and culture, which can either be intriguing or difficult to absorb.  Fill the Void has a similar feeling, though it handles its tone with more confidence.  It is not the best of Israeli cinema, but it remains competently shot and the performances are superb.

Directed by Rama Burshtein, Fill the Void is even more cultural specific than Footnote.  It deals wholeheartedly with the topic of arranged marriage and the rituals involved as tradition and modernity clash in the altar of life and love.  After the death of his wife, Yochay (Yiftach Klein) hands over his newborn child to his wife's younger sister, Shira (Hadas Yaron), for caretaking. 

Afraid that Shira will grow up without a suitor, Yochay's mother-in-law decides to arrange a marriage between Yochay and Shira.  It is interesting to see how the film unfolds, though its slower-than-usual pacing may not sustain the interest of the average viewer.  It also does not help that the narrative meanders too much on Shira's indecisiveness to accept marriage (or not). 

For most parts, the narrative engages less than the performances of the cast.  Yaron may have won Best Actress at the Venice Film Festival, but Burshtein's film is essentially an ensemble-driven one, rather than placing most of its dramatic weight on one single character. 

The cinematography is excellent with the distinctive (and extensive) use of focus pulling in one-to-one dialogue scenes.  While mostly quiet, the film is occasionally injected with the sounds of a mournful accordion, and men singing religious hymns.  The visual style and sound design combine to give a sort of ethereal feeling, best exemplified when the film reaches its narrative climax. 

Fill the Void is at best a film with strong performances.  I don't think it is the best Israeli cinema can offer, but it is a respectable effort nonetheless.

Verdict:  A slow but competently shot film that is culturally specific with the cast performances engaging more than the narrative.


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