Fill the Void (Lemale Et Ha'Chalal): Venice Review

Fill the Void
The curious world of Orthodox Hasidic Jews is affectionately portrayed in the unexpected tale of a marriage.  

Rama Burshstein's unusual first feature is almost a rom com pairing young Israeli actors Yiftach Klein and Hadas Yaron.

Not just a charming and accomplished first film, Fill the Void qualifies as one of Venice’s most exotic competition entries, throwing open a window on the world of an Orthodox Hassidic family in Tel Aviv. Writer-director Rama Burshstein, who is a member of that community, engineers a serious romantic drama (though there are more than a few moments of rom com) in the context of a closed group with strict rules relating to marriage and relationships. While festival life is assured, the film’s setting and mind-set are so special they will limit commercial release to serious art house circuits.

PHOTOS: Venice Film Festival Day 1: Opening Ceremony Brings Out Glitz, Glamour and Kate Hudson

In spite of all the prayers and traditional music, the religious rites performed in oppressively crowded rooms and small spaces, the men’s heavy costumes and hats and the timeless dresses and headpieces worn by the women, in the end this is the familiar story of a man and a woman looking for happiness. It all begins in a supermarket, where Shira and her mother Rivka are “shopping” for a suitor. Shira (Hadas Yaron, Out of Sight) is an 18-year-old soap-and-water beauty, excited to be married off to a nice boy chosen by her parents. Her father is a kindly rabbi and her mother Rivka (Irit Sheleg) warmly supportive of the family. But before their betrothal is confirmed, tragedy strikes and Shira’s older sister Esther dies giving birth to her first child during the Purim festivities.

This event not only puts Shira’s marriage on hold, it poses a terrible problem for Esther’s husband Yochai (Yiftach Klein), who finds himself with a motherless baby to care for. The community expects him to remarry quickly, and to keep him from accepting a match in faraway Belgium, Rivka proposes he marry Shira. Though reluctant at first, Yochai agrees.

Shira debates what to do. Her sensibility tells her to marry the boy her own age, for whom she’ll be his first wife; her good sense knows marrying Yochai is what her mother wants, and she feels duty-bound to raise her sister’s child. The family holds powwows with the head rabbi, match-makers and the community; everyone has an opinion, but it’s up to Shira to decide.

PHOTOS: Top 10: Day Dresses in Venice

The only doubt in the viewer’s mind is why it takes her so long to realize Yochai is the best-looking guy in the room. He also has a reassuringly human side: he drinks, smokes and even sobs emotionally at one point. Still, he is her dead sister’s husband and her hesitation feels right, as she's put through a painful see-saw of feelings. Yaron has a youthful innocence that plays well with little dialogue, while Klein has a reserved masculinity that is never undermined by letting his sensitivity show through.

All in all, these are very likeable people whose confusion, disagreements and sorrows seem to dissolve in the warmth and affection emanating from their tightly knit community.  Burshstein portrays it as being surprisingly open, or at least not as suffocating as it first appears. At Purim, Shira’s father distributes money to the menfolk for their various needs. Joyous arranged weddings follow one after another. The kindly rabbi is an immensely wise judge of human nature, and so on. Of course there’s no sign of rebellion against the Orthodox rules and regulations, which the film uncritically glorifies.

PHOTOS: Venice Film Festival Day 3: Zac Efron Touts 'At Any Price,' Spike Lee Celebrates 'Bad 25'

Burshstein confidently embraces a simple style and each scene is shot straightforwardly, allowing the characters, sets and costumes to come to the fore. The result is more realistic than beautiful, though when the story calls for it she has no trouble injecting poetry into a scene, like the exquisitely awkward formal meeting between Yochai and Shira, or just the way the light falls on the girl's face in close-up.  A great deal of traditional and melodic music is used to create atmosphere, more than feels necessary at times.

Venue: Venice Film Festival (competing), Sept. 1, 2012.

Production company: Norma Productions

Cast: Hadas Yaron, Yiftach Klein, Irit Sheleg, Chaim Sharir, Razia Israely, Hila Feldman, Renana Raz, Yael Tal, Michael David Weigl, Ido Samuel, Neta Moran, Melech Thal

Director: Rama Burshtein

Screenwriter: Rama Burshtein

Producers:  Assaf Amir

Director of photography: Asaf Sudry

Production designer: Ori Aminov

Costumes: Chani Gurewitz

Editor: Sharon Elovic

Music: Yitzhak Azulay

Sales Agent: Match Factory

No rating, 90 minutes.