The “state of grace” is not, to put it mildly, a Jewish idea; in fact, save for Christ’s divinity, it may be the least Jewish concept in all of Christianity. So it is a fascinating irony that the first movie written and directed by an ultra-Orthodox Jewish filmmaker seems to embody the state of grace—albeit in an aesthetic way. I don’t know when I’ve ever seen a film as eerily perfect in tone and taste as Fill the Void.
This Israeli movie, the best film ever made in that country, tells a modest story. But the mere act of telling that story on film was an astonishingly ambitious thing to do, given the strictures imposed on writer-director Rama Burshtein by her own religious beliefs. Burshtein is an American-born 46-year-old who was raised a secular Jew in Israel, attended film school in Jerusalem, and became a member of what is known as the Haredi community at the age of 27.
What she has done here is to make a film about Haredi life in which that life is not the subject but the setting. (The word “haredi” means “those who tremble before God.”) In keeping with Haredi practice, men and women cannot touch onscreen. Women must be modestly clothed at all times, and married characters must have their heads covered. Men pray; women run the household.
This is not a movie in which a character has an existential crisis about the suffocating nature of traditional practice, and blessings upon Burshtein’s head for that. She neither romanticizes nor condemns Haredi ways. She treats them as though they are the stuff of everyday life, which they are for her characters. Those characters are kind and selfish, thoughtful and thoughtless, beset by personal disappointments and elevated by small triumphs. They are anybody.
As Fill the Void begins, 18-year-old Shira (the extraordinary Hadas Yaron) and her mother Rivka (the equally extraordinary Irit Sheleg) are scouting out her potential bridegroom in a Tel Aviv supermarket. He passes muster, and Shira tells her very pregnant and astonishingly beautiful sister Esther that she is wild with excitement.
Then a terrible tragedy strikes. Esther dies in childbirth, leaving a bereft widower named Yochay and a needy newborn named Mordechai. Dazed with grief, the mother and sister take care of Mordechai until word comes that his father has been proffered an arranged marriage to a widow with two children in Belgium. The thought of losing Mordechai is more than his grandmother can bear, and she conceives of a plan: Shira should marry her late sister’s husband to keep him and the baby close.
Given the Haredi connection to Jewish tradition, this is not an outrageous idea. There is an ancient practice called “levirate marriage” in which the brother of a dead man is obliged to marry his childless widow—a humane practice in ancient times, because it kept her under the protection of her late husband’s extended family rather than casting her out on her own. (Oddly enough, the first genuinely good Israeli film, 1972’s I Love You Rosa, concerned the proposed levirate marriage between a woman in her 20s and her brother-in-law, all of 12.)
Yochay is appalled by the notion at first, but warms to it; not surprising, as Shira is in full bloom. Shira resists, apparently because she believes she had already been matched with the boy in the supermarket. It turns out her reasons are far more complicated, ambiguous, and fascinating.
Marriage is the center of all things in Fill the Void, and it is mysterious and enveloping and frightening and ecstatic. Without ever making the point explicit, Burshtein clearly communicates that marriage is not only a domestic arrangement but the condition in which eroticism finds its deepest (and, in her world, its only) expression. Her sense of its potency brought to my mind Philip Larkin’s masterpiece, “The Whitsun Weddings,” about a train filled with newlyweds: [W]hat it held, Larkin wrote of the train, Stood ready to be loosed with all the power / That being changed can give.
Fill the Void is also about the power that being changed can give—a change wrought by a tragic death that leads to a new life. There isn’t a moment when Burshtein goes wrong, goes melodramatic, goes didactic, goes false. Working as a woman of faith in a medium looked on with understandable suspicion and skepticism by those who believe as she does, Rama Burshtein has made a work of art of overwhelming beauty and impact.
John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is The Weekly Standard’s movie critic.