“Fill the Void” by Rama Burshtein / Venice 2012 review

Opening the door on the daily life, the rules and the internal mechanisms of a Hasidic family, newcomer Rama Burshtein participates in the Official Competition section of the 69th Venice Film Festival with a movie that walks the fine line between scathing criticism and vindication of a religious community.

“Fill the Void” forms part of the unofficial rising wave of Israeli cinema, consisting of a series of films that explore the idiosyncratic routine of Ultra-Orthodox Jews and their place in Jewish society.

In Burshtein’s case, this exploration becomes especially interesting, as up until now, she had been teaching and makings films exclusively for the Hasidic community and is said to have consulted with Ultra-Orthodox ρabbis throughout the making of “Fill the Void” in order to stay true to their world, where her story takes place.

This would partially explain her almost ceremonial fixation with Orthodox Jewish traditions and the Hasidic community’s everyday dramas that rage within the confines of their rule-bound lives.

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“Fill the Void’s” central character is 18-year-old Shira, who is about to be married off to a unknown member of the community, handpicked by her family. Unfortunately, the death of her older sister while giving birth to her first child postpones their matchmaking frenzy, putting her in a very awkward position: Shira is called upon to decided whether she’d like to marry her sister’s widower so her newborn child isn’t plucked from the bosom of her family.

Burshtein observes the dilemma of her protagonist, the youngest member of an unyielding family that’s nevertheless revealed to be vulnerable and human in the face of grave loss.

That’s exactly where the film’s main problem lies, which, under different circumstances, could have developed into an excellent case study on organized religion and its impact on human nature.

While Shira is theoretically a symbol of rebellion, as she refuses to succumb to the will of her parents and marry her sister’s widower, Burshtein doesn’t really give her the option to differentiate herself from the people around her. The entire drama is exhausted on whether she can accept (and, eventually, love) a man she doesn’t want or get married to a complete stranger!

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With a sprinkling of human moments and a sense of humor that pierces through the strict religious ritual, Burshtein is unsure whether she wants to criticize or vindicate the world she lives in, although she eventually leans towards the latter, presenting Ultra-Orthodox Judaism as a largely misunderstood religious faith.

Her narrative approach is clean and simple, with a heightened sense of observation and a supreme understanding of spatial limitations, not to mention her strong empathy for both her characters and the choices they make. If this is a quirky romantic comedy, then it’s certainly taking place against the strangest background imaginable.

Problem is, even if “Fill the Void” isn’t exactly a propaganda movie, it still accepts the fact that women are confined to the background, renouncing their free will in the name of religion.

And although you have every reason to respect their choices, that doesn’t mean you have to accept them…

Read all our Venice 2012 reviews here

Check out two clips from “Fill the Void”: