BluRay/DVD Reviews

FILL THE VOID

By • May 12th, 2014 •

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If a woman dies in childbirth leaving her child behind, what should happen to her husband and child? Should the woman’s younger sister be asked to marry the husband? If their parents pressure her to marry her sister’s husband, is it intrusive on the younger sister’s life, or is it a good solution? The younger sister could care for the deceased sister’s child, but may not want to marry the husband. So is this solution cruel or practical? Is it immoral, or incest-like?

Could the younger sister feel romantic about him?

These questions are provoked by the Israeli film, FILL THE VOID. Shira’s, older sister, Esther, dies in childbirth, leaving behind her husband and son. Throughout the duration of the film, Shira, her parents, and other loved ones, debate whether Shira should marry Esther’s husband, Yochay. No clear answer is presented. One could argue that it is intrusive on Shira’s life, yet in other ways it is portrayed as being a good and practical solution. This aspect of the central premise is strong because it provokes the viewer to think about these questions. Additionally, within her Ultra-Orthodox community, women are generally pressured to marry young, and a woman’s independence isn’t accepted. Shira doesn’t seem to have many options besides marriage. She cannot attend the yeshiva, go to college, or have a career. Between watching Shira interact with her parents, and how the film depicts her society’s expectations of women, the viewer (especially if the viewer comes from a secular, non religious background) is made to wonder if Shira is being treated in a cruel and sexist way. However, the way Yochay is scripted depicts him as a loving, kind man who treats Shira well. And there is an argument for arranged marriages working because of the possibility of your parents knowing you well enough to pick a mate who is good for you. The women in the film seem willing to accept their role in the larger Jewish community. So there isn’t a clear answer. And this demonstrates part of what makes it a particularly satisfying film, because it captures a strong sense of tension and conflict while exploring the complexity of the situation.

One of the film’s main strengths, which makes it so likeable, is the central premise/conflict of the screenplay. Just before her sister died in childbirth, Shira was supposed to have married a man her own age – a scholar in a yeshiva she had met through the matchmaker, Pinchas Millar – who she was genuinely interested in marrying. Because her father is upset about her sister’s death and doesn’t want to be confronted with an empty house, he delays deciding on her match, which provokes the boy’s family to call it off. Much of the central conflict/tension/premise of the film comes from Shira’s desire to have an arranged marriage with the man she wants, and feelings of upset when it fails. It is about the the life she wants and her dreams, versus her duty to her family. What Shira is scripted to want is made clear; what the others around her are scripted to want is also made clear. Through the combination, the film is primed to begin with a conflict that will continue throughout.

Second, because we’re given a clear sense of what Shira wants in the conflict, even though she doesn’t always behave perfectly, we have a sense of empathy for her position, making us feel more forgiving of her mistakes. In general, the film leaves the viewer excited and emotionally engaged, eager, anxious and impatient to see what will happen. It provokes the viewer to ask questions like, “Will Shira be able to marry the man she wants or will she marry Yochay”? “Will Shira be happy?”

While the movie is directed in a way that makes it fun, one is nonetheless urged to think deeply about serious, universal aspects of life including family, love, marriage, and duty. It makes the viewer, especially if the viewer is used to the idea of dating and marrying for love, reconsider preconceptions about how one goes about acquiring love and marriage, and if our way really is the best. After all, even Shira at the beginning of the story is not only used to the idea of having an arranged marriage, but is actually eager for it to happen and becomes aggravated with her family for not making it happen sooner! Also, the film doesn’t feature sexuality or nudity, which would make it relate to people’s more basic common instincts, relating instead to people’s sense of family, duty, friendship, romantic love and marriage.

The film has a strong sense of a beginning, middle and an end. We are introduced to Shira and her desire to marry the man she wants to marry. Esther dies during Purim, which both makes Shira’s parents delay her match to Shira’s prospective groom and leaves Yochay wishing to remarry and provide his son, Mordechai, with a stepmother. In the second act, Shira and her parents debate her prospective marriage with Yochay and a number of problems and complications arise. While there are moments in the screenwriting that could have been improved concerning the plot, overall, these events provide the film with a sense of structure, suspense and what Shira wants as a protagonist. In general, this outline gives the movie a satisfying story arc. Furthermore, the plot includes some twists that add excitement, curiosity and surprise. For example, Esther dies in the bathroom in the middle of her family having people over for Purim. This is scripted cleverly because the Purim scene is so happy.

This is compounded by the character development in the screenplay. Shira, is portrayed as a likeable protagonist despite making mistakes at times. After all, she has just lost her sister and is grieving, and it is common for grief to make people change, both as people and in terms of behaving in ways they wouldn’t normally. It is also interesting how they have her play the accordion as a detail. The screenplay makes her look like a good daughter, a good sister and a good friend. It also makes her look like a religious young woman who defers to her community’s ideas about spirituality for women, and a gentle, meek young woman who defers to those around her. Even if one is not orthodox Jewish, this fact still makes her admirable because she has higher standards, and principles than the average person, and at least she has a moral code. So much of our media promotes promiscuity and makes women look disposable, and while I do not agree with her lifestyle, I respect her and would rather have a movie out there that has a female protagonist who has values and a philosophy and ideology she believes in, than a female lead who doesn’t have anything she believes in at all. It makes her a better role model, especially for other women and girls.

A lot of our media pushes sexuality to an extreme to sell to male viewers, especially an extreme version of female sexuality. At least in this film the female protagonist looks like she has more to offer. She is portrayed as having a life, and of wanting a life of family, duty, spiritual fulfillment, love, marriage and motherhood rather than just instant gratification. She forces non-Orthodox Jewish women to question their views of Orthodox women. That feeds into what makes FILL THE VOID such a well-made, sophisticated movie. It is portrayed through the film that Orthodox women in the community mostly participate in women-only activities, and there is much segregation of the sexes in general. She’s what the whole film is constructed around. When we see shots of the women’s section, usually she is featured. When we see shots of Orthodox courtship, usually it is scripted to feature her role in the courtship process. The crux of the premise, the conflict and the plot revolve around the decisions surrounding her marriage and who her life partner will be.

As for Yochay, while he isn’t featured as much as Shira, he is also a likeable character. Similarly to Shira, we feel empathetic with him and forgiving of his mistakes because he goes through the loss of his first wife at the beginning. Losing his wife probably brings up a lot of emotions like hurt, anger, sadness and loss that undoubtedly change him as a person. He is made to look like a devout Jewish man, with morals and an identity within the larger Jewish community, who tries to be a good father to his son, Mordechi, a good husband to his first wife, Esther, a good son-in-law to his in-laws and a good husband to his second wife, Shira. While I do not agree with all his moral values, I admire him more for his beliefs and for being a good family member. I believe these characteristics give Yochay and Shira depth as characters within a story overall that many characters in our media do not possess.

Some of the supporting characters are also scripted well. I think this is especially true for Esther, Shira’s sister, Shira’s father, Aharon and Shira’s friend, Frieda.

Shira’s father, Aharon, is scripted to be a likeable character. Similar to Yochay, he is portrayed as a religious, spiritually devoted Orthodox Jewish man with morals. We often see him in the male-only sections of Orthodox Jewish life, giving the viewer a sense of insight into what life is like for Orthodox Jewish men living in Israel, a sense of their humanity we couldn’t acquire without his presence.

Frieda is largely there as Shira’s friend and another young Orthodox woman who we see shots of in the women’s section. We are meant to feel sorry for her because for the majority of the film none of the men in their community want to marry Frieda. She is forced by circumstances to stand by and watch the other women get married. She has to go to the wedding of one of her friends, Shifi, and have people tell her that they hope she gets married next. Even Shira, who is her friend, after hearing that someone else thinks that Yochay should marry Frieda, tells Frieda he doesn’t want her. This upsets Frieda because it makes her feel spurned. In the end, she marries Mr. Shtreicher, an older man.

One of the screenwriter’s inspirations was Jane Austen. Frieda is similar to Charlotte Lucas from Pride and Prejudice. Charlotte, like Frieda, did not expect to marry. Near the end of Pride and Prejudice, she marries Mr. Collins out of convenience and not out of any feelings of deep romantic love. Frieda, likewise, marries Mr. Shtreicher out of convenience and because he offers to have an arranged marriage with her. This serves as a striking contrast to Shira, who is in love with Yochay when they marry. Frieda is largely significant to the film because, by helping to contribute to the Jane Austen literary reference, she helps give the screenplay more depth and meaning. Jane Austen is considered a classic novelist and the fact that the screenwriter chooses her as an influence makes the film more universal.

The screenwriting is a large part of what makes FILL THE VOID a strong movie, forcing the viewer to rethink their position on the place of Orthodox Jewish women in real life and how discriminated against they are. It especially makes the viewer reconsider their thoughts on Orthodox women having arranged marriages and how terrible arranged marriages are in reality. In the Western secular world we mostly have love marriages and have preconceived notions of arranged marriages as archaic, sexist, old-fashioned traditions that take away women’s freedom of choice. However, the film makes it look as if the female ultimately has the right to say no and some of the women are happy with the system. This makes one wonder if arranged marriages are such a terrible method for getting married.

Another impressive aspect of the film is the acting , especially when it comes to Hadas Yaron’s performance as Shira, and Yiftach Klein who plays Yocachy. When it comes to Hadas Yaron, she is good at making the viewer think she is a cute, innocent young Orthodox Israeli woman who is naïve when it comes to romance and life, and who acts shy and nervous around men. This comes through not only in the way she says her lines, but in the nonverbal signals in her performance. She communicates that there is more going on under the surface through her silences, the way she looks at people, and by other nonverbal cues. This adds to her empathy if a viewer is younger and can remember being her age. If a viewer is older, it may be harder to relate to her.

Yiftach Klein’s gives an equally persuasive performance as Yochay, accomplishing this through the way he pronounces his lines, in his gestures, and in his mannerisms. He also creates conflict through his performance, especially when he interacts with Hadas Yaron who, as Shira, hurts his feelings and makes him emotional when they interact.

This viewer understands Shira’s position, but Yochay is so able to capture being a man who’s so distressed about his wife’s death that we can understand his behavior as well. As a result, the viewer is left with a sense of two characters’ voices we feel invested in, rooting for their success. We want both Shira and Yochay to have a happy outcome. And, he has perfect chemistry with Hadas Yaron on camera.

The music is another of the film’s positive aspects. The score is unique in that it does not feature popular music. Instead, it largely consists of melodic and traditional Jewish music composed by Yitzhak Azulay. Even though it a more unusual choice, it is also often upbeat and captivating. This viewer especially enjoyed the music in the Purim scene, Frieda’s engagement and Shiffi’s engagement. In each of these scenes, even though it’s still Orthodox Jewish traditional music, it has a fun beat and makes the viewer wants to get up and start dancing. This is not one of the more profound aspects of the movie, however the music choices add a unique voice in a world that values popular music. And they have Shira playing the accordion!

While FILL THE VOID is a good film because of its overall screenwriting, acting and music, to this viewer, the ending comes off as abrupt. (SPOILER ALERT) The final sequence is Shira and Yochay’s wedding. After the wedding, Shira and Yochay go off into another room, and the movie ends. While it is common to leave the viewer wondering what will happen, in this instance it seems too sudden. We do not even see if Shira and Yochay speak to each. It is a disappointingly weak wrap-up to an overall powerful narrative. (SPOILER CONCLUDED)

Another problem with the film is that it makes Shira’s reasons for giving in to marrying Yochay look ambiguous and confusing, Near the end of the movie, she says ‘yes.’ But she never acknowledges whether she is willing to marry Yochay because she really loves him or because she wants to make her family happy.

One can certainly argue that there are parts of FILL THE VOID that could be improved. However, in general, this viewer feels that it is a film deserving of an ‘A’ (if we were giving it a grade).

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