After an indifferent week at a local multiplex back in July, it seemed that Fill the Void was going to be just another of those independent/foreign films that slips through the cracks. Thankfully, the Nashville Jewish Film Festival has stepped in to give the film a one-night return — 7 p.m. tonight at The Belcourt — to the benefit of cinephiles throughout the city.
In a Haredi community in Tel Aviv, an unspeakable loss leaves a family besieged on all sides. Young Shira (Hadas Yaron, in one of the finest performances of the year), coming into her own as a woman, is devoted to her sister Esther (Renana Raz). Esther's marriage to the kind and dreamy Yochay (Yiftach Klein) has been blessed with a child, and Shira finds a great deal of joy living vicariously through her older sister.
But when Esther dies in childbirth, the family is faced with a double dilemma: Should Yochay be married off to a recent widow in Belgium — or should he take Shira as his bride, as is levirate custom, despite her own plans for marriage? The newborn child only makes circumstances more and more complicated.
Each subsequent viewing finds Shira growing more complex. After three viewings, it's still never absolutely certain what motivates her at any given moment, which makes Yaron's performance an achievement on par with Summer Phoenix's unusual and triumphant turn as Esther Kahn in Arnaud Desplechin's film of that name.
Here's a film for anyone who says that not enough movies get made about religious traditionalism. It's a conservative film (not a Conservative film) — one deeply rooted in devotion to family, tradition and community — and the way that writer-director Rama Burshtein portrays the different worlds of the men and the women is fascinating. The rabbi's word may be the engine that drives the community, but the women's gatherings and discussions accomplish just as much (if not more). The small scenes when man and wife are left to themselves to talk and figure out the world are handled with an intimacy that can seem overwhelming.
Burshtein does an exceptional job of using depth-of-field to delineate Shira's sphere of influence. As the film progresses, we find that space increasing, reducing the visual isolation so present during the earlier parts of the film. We as viewers are literally allowed into more of her world.
How often can you say that a film has four great roles for women, each of whom has a distinct emotional throughline? As far as providing an interested mind with the complex and intriguing ways that women live in Haredi society, Burshtein's film is as valuable as the works of Alifa Rifaat and Aicha Lemsine are for their views into the feminine spheres of Islam. There's not a more impressive first feature in theatres this year.