Rama Burshtein’s Fill the Void opens with a chirpy young lady, Shira, groom-shopping at a mall with her mother Revka. The women point to different men scattered around and discuss them like potential prospects. All of them sport the conventional-orthodox-Jewish look. Afterwards, we see her run up to her pregnant sister Esther and brace her excitedly telling her that they’ve found a suitor for her. Her brother-in-law smiles in approval, sharing her joy.
This family seems to have quite a bit going for it. And everything does go well in their favour. That is, until a tragedy befalls them. Esther dies in childbirth, only to be survived by her husband Yochay and new-born son. Instead of focusing on the immediate implications of the tragedy, Rama Burshtein skips the melodrama and fast-forwards to a point where they’ve moved on with their lives. The past is no longer a dwelling issue for the family. It's the future. Shira’s marriage is approaching while Yochay himself is considering remarriage. The question lingering in Burshtein’s mind here is whether the family fabric will remain intact after such an incident. This question also happens to prod Shira’s mother, Revka, who dreads the possibility of an empty house.
Rumor has it that Yochay’s prime prospect is a childhood friend he hasn’t seen in over a decade. Unable to stand it, Revka figures that the only way she can keep their family together is by marrying her younger daughter Shira off to her son-in-law Yochay. I liked the way Burshtein shows Revka chancing upon this idea. Burshtein implies it without spelling it out. Revka is drinking coffee, staring outside from her kitchen and is lost in thought. She turns, only to catch Shira, Yochay and his son together. This POV shot mirrors a family portrait. Revka, desperate and anxious, seizes the opportunity, pushing Shira to marry Yochay, and Yochay to marry Shira.
Shira’s father is a man of stronger character. He sees Revka afraid, desperate and demanding of Shira and Yochay. He steps in to remind them both that they are free to make their own choices and bound by none else. Just when you think this is going to be entirely about Revka and her own orchestration of her family, Burshtein steers you into a whole different territory- one that offers you more to chew on. Shira takes the lead in the story and it is her own dilemma that decides how to propel this story. She’s from an orthodox Jewish family, lives in a cloistered environment and still thinks like a child. She doesn’t know if she wants to marry Yochay (who initially put off by the idea, eventually relents), she doesn’t know if rejecting him would be the right thing to do, she doesn’t know if she’d find a better suitor, she doesn’t know if she has a personal stance in all of this and she remains unsure of whether she is even meant to have a personal stance in all of this. And as Yochay’s prospects increase, the fence she’s on keeps thinning.
The family takes the issue to the elders of the community. We’re shown earlier the conservative nature of the way things are dealt with here. People visit for help, money, advice and the like. But even within the conservative atmosphere, the elders seem genuinely interested in the well-being of individuals in their community. When Shira is asked how she feels personally about marrying Yochay, she explains innocently that her feelings are of little relevance here and that she only wants to do what’s right for the family. The elder reminds her, “My dear, it’s all about the feelings.” This line somehow got my attention. Shira’s task here outmatches her experience. It is decided that the marriage isn't a good idea. Even Revka, who collapses upon hearing the verdict, later feels for her daughter and concedes amicably. But this expression of remorse only amplifies Shira’s sense of guilt and drives her into marrying Yochay, successfully preserving her sense of duty.
The family copes with the situation and finally manage to fill the void left behind by Esther. But what’s interesting is that Shira is shown in the same state of confusion, just as she’s about to spend her first night with her now-husband Yochay. The film ends there, pointing to her state of confusion. What is the significance of such an end? How does this tie in with the title, I wondered. She put her own interest aside to fill up the void of the family, and it is likely that this decision will, in time, catch up and create a new void inside of her.
This is a modest film earnest in its intentions. Burshtein refrains from siding with any character here and is understanding and empathetic of each. The mother Revka could’ve been easily demonized as a manipulative self-serving bitch, but Burshtein refrains and instead brings the character’s vulnerabilities to the fore. There’s no sensationalism here, nor any noticeable effort to make the film a compelling view (and it isn’t), but it is easy to go the distance with and you walk out with things to think about. For that, I’m pleasantly satisfied and grateful.