Fill the Void is a universal story of love and power

There are many in the wider Jewish world who view the strictly Orthodox on a scale ranging from disdain and condescension to outright loathing.

When shown on film or in TV documentaries, the “black hats” tend to be the butt of criticism, dislike or ridicule. Their existence is depicted as harsh and narrow, bound by obscurantist rules which are utterly mystifying to those living in the “real” world who see nothing there in common with their own lives.

So Fill the Void, the first feature film by Israeli director Rama Burshtein, is a revelation. Told from the perspective of the director’s own world of Charedim, it illuminates it from within with a rare beauty as it unveils the extreme intensity and complexity of that culture.

It is a culture in which the overriding imperative is to put the welfare of others first; and in which the stupendous bulwark of rules and tradition which provides so much support can neither heal brokenhearts nor protect others from the terrible fall-out.

The story is about love and duty in a society where marriages are brokered, but are no less loving for that, and where to remain unmarried is a source of anguish.

Eighteen year-old Shira is looking forward to a match with a young man whom she has glimpsed once. Her dreams are shattered, however, when her elder sister Esther dies in childbirth, leaving her desolate widower Yochay to look after his infant son. Yochay looks set to re-marry a widow who lives in Belgium. But Shira’s mother, unable to cope with losing
Esther’s son abroad, wants Yochay to marry Shira instead.

What is being proposed for Shira is hideous, grotesque — an 18-year-old being urged to marry her brother-in-law purely to keep the baby within the family. Yet we are drawn into the dilemma, as through Shira’s eyes we see the extreme anguish of her mother, half-mad with grief over the death of her daughter and now unable to face the loss of her tiny grandson to live abroad.

We also see the terrible distress of Yochay, who moves from his initial horror at the idea of marrying an 18-year-old “child” to misery at her rejection of him and his resulting likely exile.

Shira’s face in the final ambivalent frames, as she is literally backed against the wall as if trying desperately to escape the self-immolating fate she has sealed for herself, is an image of claustrophobia and despair that is hard to dispel.

Some will conclude this is a totally different world. And for most of us, it is. But what is shown here is certainly not unique to that world. Its essential features – an abuse of power camouflaged by love or grief – can be recognised in many other families.

A parent unable for whatever reason to allow their daughter to live as a truly separate person. The devastating emotional blackmail that a parent in agony can unleash upon their child.

The confusion of love and control — “my sweetheart” murmurs the mother, tenderly caressing Shira’s hand even as she destroys her weeping daughter’s choice about how to live her life; and the desire of the child to “do the right thing” to ease the pain of those she loves. This kind of manipulation has blighted the lives of children well beyond the confines of strictly Orthodox society.

The precise nature of this predicament may be particular to this culture. But the terrible struggle between love and duty, the potentially coercive relationships within families and the opportunity this presents to blight a young person’s life for ever, are universal.

Painful, mesmerising, beyond tragic — and an unflinching gaze at what makes us all tick.

    Last updated: 11:22am, December 24 2013