‘Fill the Void’ delves into an Orthodox romance (of sorts)

Yiftach Klein plays an Orthodox widower considering marriage with Hadas Yaron (background) in Yiftach Klein plays an Orthodox widower considering marriage with Hadas Yaron (background) in “Fill the Void.”
Credit: Sony Pictures Classics

‘Fill the Void’
Director: Rama Buhrstein
Stars: Hadas Yaron, Yiftach Klein
Rating: PG
3 (out of 5) Globes

Religious films have acquired a bad reputation over the years, primarily because the few making them tend to favor moralistic kitsch. (See: The films of Kirk Cameron.) Filmmaker Rama Burshtein is a native New Yorker who, while studying in Jerusalem in her twenties, became increasingly devout. “Fill the Void,” her feature debut, was made in the Orthodox Haredi subculture of Tel Aviv. While some of the actions taken by its female lead, an 18 year old suddenly thrust into marital strife, may seem regressive to audiences outside the faith, it’s the right kind of religious film, which is to say one that grapples with its issues even as it wholeheartedly embraces it.

Hadas Yaron plays Shira, the teenagedaughter of a rabbi first seen spying on, and expressing dissatisfaction with, the gawky man to whom she’s betrothed. When her sister suddenly dies in childbirth, she finds herself confronted with another option. Her mother (Irit Shelag) doesn’t want to lose connection with her grandchild, and suggests her daughter’s brooding widower, Yohai (Yiftach Klein), pair off instead with Shira. Neither is excited about betraying the deceased, but sparks, albeit quiet and respectful ones, ensue.

Jane Austen is the cross-reference here, particularly given the fiery emotions that are forced to navigate through a dense latticework of ritual and tradition. It’s not a film critical of the Orthodox way, but it is one that acknowledges how difficult it is on human emotions. There’s no easy answer for the situation in the film, and no solution that will placate every character. Shira soon grows warmer to the idea of marrying Yohai, but it’s possible she’s mostly motivated — at 18 — by the fear of becoming the spinster/family friend, who hides her hair only so no one will pester her about life choices.

Burshtein’s characters prove more willing to play by Orthodox rules than many of its viewers would be. That makes the ending all the more of a shock. “Fill the Void” pulls a trick from “The Graduate” and “The Candidate,” abruptly questioning whether everything the characters have worked to become cool with was worth it. Directorially, it’s a heavy film, shot with long lenses that create a shallow depth of field. At its most excessive, only part of one character’s face will be completely in focus. Its style mirrors characters both burdened by their faith and passionate about making it work.

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