Sun 5 Jan 2014
Rama Burshtein‘s first feature film Lemale et ha’halal / Filling the Void was awarded the prize for the best Israeli movie in 2012 and yet, it belongs to a genre which is quite unique in the landscape of the Israeli cinema. Films about the life of the ultra-Orthodox community are made in the low numbers and I can remember only one such significant film of this kind, (the slightly better) Ha-Ushpizin. Paradoxically, Filling the Void was to some extent a reaction of the director to Gidi Dar and Shuli Rand‘s film, which she did not appreciate as authentic enough and respectful enough towards the ultra-Orthodox (‘haredi’) community (I did not have any such feeling when I saw their film). It took many years to the director (an ultra-Orthodox herself, quite a unique status in her community) and the effort deserves a lot of respect, and so does the resulting film as well.
Let us try to make abstraction of the location (the small haredi community in the most secular city of Tel Aviv) and look at this film as to any other ‘ethnic’ movie. The story talks about the dilemma of a beautiful young girl who reached the age of marriage. In her community marriage is always arranged and blessed by the parents. There is a slight room for decision for the young woman who can meet the candidates and refuse the match if she does not like them. Not much more than this however. And there are more rules. As her elder sister dies at birth-giving, her mother takes the new born in her care, but the best interest of the family and the community is that the girl would marry the widower. The balance between duty and love can tear the soul of any young woman, but especially the one of a girl living in a community in which women’s principal destiny is marriage, and where the choice happens only once in one’s life. Eventually things arrange, as the widower is also the most handsome and most sensitive male around and because all decisions (important or small details of life) reach eventually the wise rabbi who plays the role of the ‘deus ex machina’ in the Hollywood scripts. (how appropriate this Latin expression is here).
The script is far from perfect from an intrigue point of view, and there are more flaws to come. Unless the script written by Rama Burshtein for director Rama Burshtein was fully respectful to the the norms of the community she lives in she would never make the film. So there is no explicit critic or social comment whatsoever in this film, and this may make the blood boil to many feminist and not-so-feminist but secular viewers. The handling of money as a way to solve problems during the audiences at the rabbi may be considered kind of a satire, until you know that this is actually the way a Purim custom is enacted at the rabbinical courts. The lack of social comment is replaced by a painful attention to the details of the rituals and life of the community and the individuals living within. Rama Burshtein succeeds to create many charming moments of true cinema, either by unusual camera angles (the scene of the circumcision), by elaborate costumes and authentic setting, or by directing a team of actors, many of them non-religious (like Hadas Yaron and Yftach Klein in the lead roles) into the details not only of the tradition that the characters represent and of the emotions that they feel.
There is a lot of curiosity and openness from the non-religious or not-so-religious sectors of the Israeli society towards the lives and feelings of the ultra-Orthodox community and this is reflected also by the success of this film. Rama Burshtein is a talented film maker but taking into consideration her community and style of life I wonder if there will be a second film at this level of achievement – because despite its flaws ‘Fill the Void’ is an achievement in its own way.