There’s a hushed, disarming power to Fill The Void, a new Israeli drama set in contemporary Tel Aviv, but cast in the classic mold of a Jane Austen romance. The film takes place in one of the city’s most devout Hasidic communities, and that alone lends it an uncommon fascination. (The infectious music! The mighty beards!) First-time filmmaker Rama Burshtein gazes upon this rarely explored subculture—that of the Haredi, to which she belongs—with a mixture of awed reverence and shrewd social critique. She’s reinvigorated a familiar narrative by painting it against an unfamiliar backdrop.
Exquisitely doleful Hadas Yaron, who won a deserved acting prize at Venice last year, plays the 18-year-old daughter of a rabbi, barely out of childhood but already fitted for the shackles of domesticity. Her folks have matched her up with a frumpy peer; she’s excited about the arrangement, less so about the groom. In Fill The Void’s vividly sketched neighborhood—a world as hermetically sealed as one of Austen’s closed societies—getting hitched is an imperative, not a dream come true. “He’s all right,” one girl says, unconvincingly, of her husband to be; she’s mostly just relieved that she won’t turn out like Razia Israely’s handicapped spinster, a walking and talking cautionary tale for the budding brides around her.
In a tragedy that sends ripples of sadness through the community—and the movie itself—Yaron’s older sister (Renana Raz) dies giving birth. Stricken with grief, and terrified of losing her new grandchild, the girls’ mother (Irit Sheleg) plays matchmaker, urging Yaron to wed Raz’s solemn, handsome husband (Yiftach Klein), now a widower and single father. It’s a manufactured courtship, colored by feelings of guilt and obligation; even if the two can convince themselves they’re not betraying the deceased, can they ever shake the feeling that they were both just coerced into the union? Misgivings aside, there are sparks between them: Their first sit-down, in which the Mr. Darcy-ish Klein cuts through Yaron’s defenses with a well-timed compliment, throbs with shifting emotion.
Burshtein shoots in extreme shallow focus, framing her actors against a sometimes-blinding blanket of white fuzz. It’s a decision that, coupled with Yitzhak Azulay’s stirring, chant-driven score, lends each conversation a near religious aura. A native New Yorker, the filmmaker embraced Orthodox Judaism later in life; it’s possible to read her film as a troubling endorsement of tradition at the expense of autonomy. Were she still alive, Austen might not approve of some of the heroine’s decisions.
Yet more than anything, Fill The Void feels like a communal portrait only someone torn between cultures could have made. Subtly, silently telegraphing her protagonist’s wavering resolve, Yaron internalizes the film’s duty-vs.-desire conflict. By the finale, a moving coda that somehow echoes both The Graduate and Claire Denis’ 35 Shots Of Rum, it’s hard to say what the young woman is feeling. Are her tears an expression of joy or regret? Either way, the release is cathartic—for the character and the audience alike.