There is much drama at the heart of biblical relationships, but most modern translations resort to soap melodrama, the absurd and tasteless that has now become commonplace in our reality-based culture. Once upon a time, afternoon television soap operas teased audiences with conflicts and romantic tension between siblings and their spouses or partners. We wanted to see brother fight brother for the hand of a woman; it was just so Cain and Abel.
Yet, the Old Testament sought to provide guidelines, commandments to steer us down a straighter path, at times to even guarantee certain obligations were honored. One of the most fundamental commandments involved provisions for women and children. If a husband died, it fell to his brother(s) to care for his wife and offspring, to the point of the brother taking his sister-in-law as his own wife. But what of the desires and/or life situation of the brother?
Fill the Void, written and directed by Rama Burshtein, delves into this question, from the perspective not of a brother, but a younger sister. Shira (Hadas Yaron) is a young woman, a modern Orthodox Jew in Tel Aviv, just starting on the path of finding a husband. We’re talking about a world of arranged marriages . highly formalized rituals that prescribe how meetings between prospective mates occur and what they discuss. It is foreign, but also intriguing to watch Shira, to see her excitement over a carefully orchestrated run-in with a suitor in a market. She is breathless as she recounts things to her older sister Esther (Renana Raz), already married and pregnant.
Everything changes, though, and quite dramatically when the elder sister dies in childbirth, leaving a husband and a newborn son alone. Her mother (Irit Sheleg) steps in, offering support, but she fears that her son-in-law will be forced to marry and move far away with her grandson, her last tie to her deceased daughter. The mother does what she feels she must — present Shira to her son-in-law as a replacement. It is a solution right out of the Torah, but how does this play in today’s world, even amongst the Orthodox community?
The Void that matters most is within Shira. She longs to experience the process of finding her own love, to follow in her sister’s footsteps — but not quite so literally. She sees others (her female peers and an older generation that includes her mother’s unmarried sister) and their choices, but she also feels compelled to follow the dictates of obligation. There is her nephew who needs a mother and her brother-in-law who needs a wife to center him. We see how raw he is emotionally, his aching for love and the possibility that this young woman might be able to give him what he needs.
The film lays out all of these elements and from an intellectual/philosophical perspective, it covers the terrain, but where it falters is in fulfilling the emotional journey. Shira is such a blank slate, so wrapped up in thinking about the dilemma, yet we never crack through that façade to what is really roiling beneath the surface. Yochay asks her repeatedly how she feels about the situation. He seems profoundly modern in his ability to think and feel his way through things and he wants the same thing from his spouse, which we can only imagine that he must have had with Shira’s sister. And he’s intent on finding it again.
We want him to, but there’s that frustrating void in Shira who thinks of everyone but herself. There is something so passive and unassuming about her that when she finally makes a decision, her reasons remain inscrutable and thus oddly unsatisfying.
Is Shira human? That was what I found myself asking, days after seeing the film. She was not just some cardboard character you’d find in a typical rom-com. Yaron has a simple beauty, an engaging innocence, yet through her performance it seems as if she has turned off all of her humanity and that’s a shame. Emotion, some sense of desire, would have been the substance necessary to fill the void of this dramatic situation. Instead, Fill the Void only outlines the argument. What is missing is a bit of the human opera and maybe a smidge of the soapy film that sticks to the skin. (PG) Grade: C+
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