Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Pull of Family, The Duties of Faith: Fill the Void

Irit Sheleg, Hadas Yaron and Chaim Sharir in Fill the Void

Even though Israeli politics and society is increasingly being affected by the growing number of ultra Orthodox (Haredi) Jews in the country, its cinema has only recently begun to deal with the often contentious and contradictory aspects of Orthodox Judaism there in a complex, nuanced way. Ironically, the first Israeli film that called attention to Haredi realities in Israel was Amos Gitai’s Kadosh (1999), a portrait of two Orthodox Jewish women stifling in the patriarchal excesses of their religion. While it’s Gitai’s only good film, as his customary claustrophobic style fits the material to a T, it is highly critical of Orthodoxy and, more significantly, was lambasted for inaccuracies in its depiction of Orthodox Jewish life. (I’m a secular Jew so I can’t attest to that.)

More recently, Israeli films on Haredim and orthodoxy have balanced criticism of Orthodox intolerance (Avanim, 2004) with serious examinations of deep faith and its moral challenges (My Father, My Lord, 2007). Other films, notably those by Joseph Cedar, an Orthodox Israeli film director, have tried to get at the way Orthodox Jewish actions can potentially, even dangerously impact upon outside secular Jewish society (Time of Favor, 2000), or have looked at how internal Orthodox Jewish life in the settlements (Campfire, 2004) affects those who actually choose to live there. And some satirical films,  like The Schwartz Dynasty (2005), cast a wide net over all of the disparate strands of Israeli Orthodox Jewish life, from how to determine if a deceased Jew is actually Jewish before he can be buried in a Jewish cemetery – many Russian Jews who have moved to Israel cannot prove their parentage – to the vigilantism some Orthodox Jews engage in when they object to butcher shops selling pork and other non-kosher meat. The latest Israeli film to deal with Orthodox Jews in Israel, Rama Burshtein's award winning and fascinating Fill the Void (2012), like 2004’s Ushpizin, comes from within the religious community, directed by an Orthodox Jewish woman and blessed by her rabbi, no less.

The story of Fill the Void is deceptively simple. When Esther Mendelman (Renana Raz), the older sister of 18 year-old Shira (Hadas Yaron), dies in childbirth, her family is, of course, devastated. But when Esther’s husband Yochay (Yiftach Klein) muses about getting married again and taking their newborn, who survived the death of his mother, abroad, Shira’s mother Rivka (Irit Sheleg), panicking about losing regular access to her first grandchild, comes to a drastic decision. She implores Shira to marry her brother-in-law so as to keep the boy close to her and the family. The movie thus hinges on Shira’s decision about whether to follow the dictates of her heart, which is uncertain about this action though she is herself desperate to get married and has some attraction to Yochay, and whether by refusing her mother’s entreaties she will damage the cohesiveness of the family in a community which values it almost above anything else. (I once saw an Israeli documentary in which a rabbi seriously suggested to a closeted lesbian Orthodox Jew that she could find a female lover as long as she didn't leave her husband and break up the family unit in the process.)

Rama Burshtein at the Venice Film Festival
What makes Fill the Void so special, besides the very fine acting – Hadas Yaron as Shira won the top actress award at last summer’s Venice Film Festival for the role, and the film, which marks Burshtein's debut, captured most of Israel’s top film awards, too – is how it doesn’t play into the expected stereotypes of what can, admittedly, often be a patriarchal, domineering religious hierarchy. Shira’s father, Rabbi Aharon (Chaim Sharir) is dead set against his daughter marrying Yochay, arguing with his wife that she should decide who she wants to wed. (Orthodox Jewish weddings are usually arranged but the bride to be does get to decide if she likes the potential groom.) And Yochay isn’t too thrilled about Rivka’s idea, either. It’s Shira’s mother who is doing most of the pushing, here. Shira, who is after all still an immature, sheltered 18, is buffeted emotionally throughout the movie, and Hadas Yaron’s remarkable incarnation of the character keeps us riveted whenever she is on screen.

The portrait of the Orthodox Jewish community is also a rich one, showcasing how the Jewish holidays mean so much to them and how the community relies on charity to the less privileged, which helps them get by. (The film doesn’t, unfortunately, touch on how the state funds so much of Orthodox Jewish institutions in Israel, often at the expense of Israel’s secular majority, who pay higher taxes as a result of all the monies going to the more religious community.) The film’s early scene where penitents approach Rabbi Aharon for money, bills, and other family needs is reminiscent of the beginning of The Godfather, when favours are asked on the occasion of Don Vito’s daughters’ wedding as per custom. (In Fill the Void, it’s apparently part of the ritual of the joyous holiday Purim.) Yet there are subtle undercurrents, too, as when one angry man, who needs cash to help take care of his mentally ill wife, lashes out at the rabbi and insists that what he is being given is not enough. One gets a sense here that this insular community isn’t always prepared for unexpected calamities. There’s also more than a suggestion that the aggrieved man feels he should have been warned before his marriage of his wife-to-be’s sickness – if marrying women off as quickly as possible is the end goal, and it is, then you can figure the family of the bride would conceal such damning evidence from a potential groom as mental illness, which would be a stigma to be hidden at all costs. And since the bride and groom would barely meet before they married, the family would likely get away with that subterfuge.

Hadas Yaron and Yiftach Klein
There’s also a welcome touch of humour as when a senior rabbi, advising the Mendelman family on their unique situation – a woman marrying her widowed brother-in-law used to be traditional among some Orthodox Jews in the nineteenth and early twentieth century – breaks off to meet with an elderly woman who needs advice on buying a new stove. This community, like most Orthodox Jewish ones, is modern in one respect – its use of cell phones. (But then they wouldn't really be Israeli, citizens of one of the leading countries for cell phone use, if they didn't utilize those devices.)

Fill the Void is very well directed by Burshtein, who also wrote the incisive script, marrying deep intimacy with a generous and expansive view of the wider Orthodox Jewish community that encompasses all its nuances and structures. It is a bit thin plot-wise; considering it’s set in a Haredi community in mostly secular Tel Aviv instead of mostly Orthodox Jerusalem, where most Haredim reside, there could have been a plot strand or two involving non-religious Israelis as there must be some contact between religious and secular there. The plot devolves at the film’s end to a repetitive will she or won’t she marry Yochay dilemma, which gets a bit boring. Otherwise, Fill the Void’s deep humanity (not surprising as Burhstein is a graduate of Israel’s premiere film school, the Sam Spiegel Film and Television School, Jerusalem, a superb cultural institution which stresses humanity as the main component of all its short films) and powerful performances, remind one, again, of how vital, relevant and consistent, Israel’s exciting national cinema has become.

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches regular film courses at Ryerson University’s LIFE Institute and the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre.

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