It’s not infrequently that I watch films set amongst cultures other than my own; I greatly enjoy seeing communities portrayed on screen of which I will never (or can never) be a part. Every group of people — whether a national culture, a religious group, or some other sub-set (such as a prison, or a workplace, or wherever) — has its own etiquette surrounding the ways its members interact with one another, some more rigidly and formally defined than others. I was very conscious while watching Fill the Void, for example, that such customs are deeply ingrained amongst its Orthodox Jewish characters, and although I wasn’t always certain of what form they took (there are no didactic speeches or condescending explanations), it became increasingly clear when the characters depicted were cleaving to them. In that respect it’s not unlike watching the formal pairings in, say, a Jane Austen film adaptation — depicting another society that I am quite removed from (in time, if not geographically, but it amounts to much the same thing). In fact, the Jane Austen comparison was in my mind during the film, so it was no surprise to see an explicit link to Austen being made by the filmmaker (and by critics in their responses to the film) that I’ve read since watching it. In this case, though, the rituals are within a group of people very much in the same world as us, a group for which the director (being herself Orthodox) has a great deal of respect, and it is this that for me provides the film its fascination.
It helps of course that the film is made so well, and I do hope the director Rama Burshtein moves on to other stories. There is a serene sense of watchfulness, with scenes allowed to unfold without melodramatic prompting, using the minimum of gestural acting — quite often just awkward glances or barely perceptible movements. I suppose this may make it seem slow to some viewers, but I found the style quite transporting. The cinematography itself is burnished by lots of soft focus and very shallow depth of field, at once giving the characters a warm glow and isolating them from their surroundings — effective particularly at moments of heightened emotion, of which there are plenty, even if they are nonetheless quite subtly conveyed.
After all, this is a film dealing with some major checkpoints in life (which is to say, death and marriage) — times when, even for those of us who do not follow any particular faith, religious rituals (or those derived ultimately from religious belief) are more involved. (They are also the kinds of events that make up the domestic fictions of Austen, which probably occasions the comparison.) The protagonist is Shira (Hadas Yaron), whose heavily pregnant sister has just died in childbirth, leaving her husband Yochay (Yiftach Klein) compelled by his community to find a new wife and mother for his child. It is Shira’s mother Rivka (Irit Sheleg) who is the one to push her other daughter towards nuptials with Yochay, the ramifications of which are dealt with in the bulk of the film. This then is the kind of scenario which to an outsider would probably occasion damning criticism, and although it’s hardly embraced wholeheartedly here, it is at least handled with some delicacy. It’s never really certain whether we as viewers are supposed to want the match to succeed or not, and that ambiguity is part of the film’s dramatic power, and may affect whether you find the denouement heartwarming or not. In either case, the film allows us enough empathy with the characters that the outcome is warmly affecting even so. The director certainly seems aware of the outsiders’ perspective: when the rabbi asks Shira how she feels about the match, she replies that it’s not about feelings but the rabbi counters that “in fact, it’s only about feelings” — in other words, Shira has a choice and no decision is forced on her.
The acting is excellent, certainly. Yaron has a difficult role to play effectively — a modest, earnest and inexperienced young woman who finds herself rather out of her depth — but does so very capably, never making Shira seem weak; she could easily be seen as a pawn to patriarchal forces, but never quite does. Equally, Klein’s devout husband is able to convey an essence of generosity even within a role that requires him to act in ways that do not always seem fair or just. A lot of work is done through glances and very tiny expressions, which means that the film’s occasional use of extreme close-ups on the protagonists’ faces are dramatically necessary.
The subject of devout religious belief is one that lends itself all too frequently to easy judgement and exaggerated condemnation from filmmakers and commentators. It’s good then to see a perspective such as this one, which works from within to achieve at least a modicum of understanding of a complex subject. The film would therefore have some value if it were just this, but the fact that it’s a sensitively and well-made drama that can warrant comparisons to the work of Jane Austen, is only to its further credit. It certainly fills a void at the heart of mainstream depictions of religious communities, and I look forward to further works from this director.
Director/Writer Rama Burshtein רמה בורשטין; Cinematographer Asaf Sudri אסף סודרי; Starring Hadas Yaron הדס ירון, Yiftach Klein יפתח קליין, Irit Sheleg עירית שלג; Length 91 minutes.
Seen at Phoenix, London, Thursday 19 December 2013.