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Sunday, June 30, 2013

Fill the Void

Love and matchmaking

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It’s an incongruous juxtaposition: a modern supermarket, crowded with Orthodox Jewish men in long black coats and medieval hats, pushing shopping carts along the aisles. Accompanied by a matchmaker, 18-year-old Shira peers anxiously into the dairy section for her first glimpse of Pinchas, the man she might marry. “What do you say?” asks the matchmaker. After a few moments of consideration, Shira’s face brightens into “yes.”

Fill the Void does what most U.S. indie films only pretend to do: sympathetically reveal a particular corner of the world or way of life seldom shown by Hollywood. American-born director Rama Burshtein, a member of the particular ultra-Orthodox sect whose Israeli milieu is Fill the Void’s setting, packs many everyday incidents into a film that never feels overstuffed or bloated with detail. Ultra-Orthodox Judaism may be a man’s world, but women have rights, including the inalienable option to say “no.” Although young and under pressure from some of the adults, Shira, played with clear-eyed, unaffected realism by Hadas Yaron, often exercises her rights.

Orthodox Judaism is by no means a dour creed. Fill the Void is full of singing, dancing and drinking, much of it pegged to a liturgical calendar that endows time with meaning for the faithful. Shira’s father is the rabbi, whose followers beseech him for money and advice on everything from love and death to which brand of oven to purchase. The rabbi oversees his flock with the mild hand of a good shepherd as he maintains the sect’s comfortable truce with modernity. Its members drive cars and carry cell phones but regulate their lives by tradition. Biological families are the building blocks of their society and marriages are alliances as scrupulously considered as contracts among business partners.

And yet, as Fill the Void shows, love can flourish from such carefully cultivated fields and the challenges of making a good match are universal. When Pinchas’ family rejects Shira for reasons left unexplained, some of her relatives encourage her to marry Yochay, the grieving widower of her eldest sister Esther, who died abruptly in childbirth. Shira doesn’t know how to respond, and worries about the middle sister, Frieda, who seems in danger of being passed over into spinsterhood.

The potential awkwardness of these sorts of relationships is apparent, but then, dating American style can also be uncomfortable. The pearly light of cinematographer Asaf Sudry adds subtle luster and beauty to the proceedings; the most stylized scene concerns the circumcision of Yochay and Esther’s son, shot from directly overhead as if from the eye of God. Will Shira be happy forever with the “yes” she finally gives? The answer, here and in any marriage in any society, is unknowable as the journey begins.

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