Rite of Passage

in 24th Palm Springs International Film Festival

by Peter Keough

Filmmakers and film audiences tend to think in stereotypes when it comes to certain groups. The sequestered Hassidic community for example — their seemingly archaic, misogynistic notions about gender roles make them easy candidates for black and white morality tales about oppressed women and patriarchal tyranny.

But it doesn’t take long before Israeli director (and Hassidic convert) Rama Burshtein’s exquisitely acted, radiantly shot, and delicately nuanced drama Fill the Void (Lemale et ha’halal), — winner of the FIPRESCI Prize for the Best Foreign Language Film of the Year at the Palm Springs International Film Festival — overturns such expectations. By bringing to life complex and sympathetic characters in a precisely observed setting and social framework — the ultra-Orthodox Haredi Jewish community of Tel Aviv — and by presenting that isolated world as a microcosm, Burshtein has achieved a gripping film without victims or villains, an ambiguous tragedy drawing on universal themes of love and loss, self-sacrifice and self preservation.

The film opens with the glow of true love. In a supermarket, 18-year-old Shira (Hadas Yaorn), attended by her mother, Rivka (Irit Sheleg), covertly spies on the young man arranged for her to marry. Contrary to the usual scenario for such cases in films, it’s love at first sight. But the glow darkens when, in the middle of a robust, radiant, and evocatively detailed Purim celebration, Shira’s older sister Esther (Renana Raz) dies in childbirth.

Complicating the family’s grief is the status of Esther’s child. Her husband Yochai (Yiftach Klein) has arranged to marry a woman in Belgium, where he plans to relocate, taking the baby with him. Having lost her daughter, Rivka will not suffer the loss of her grandchild. She proposes a radical alternative: Shira will marry Yochai.

This plan doesn’t please everybody. Yochai, bereft and devastated, seems apathetic. Shira’s father, the Rabbi Aharon (Chaim Sharir), has qualms about the prospect. Frieda (Hila Feldman), the 30-something always-a-bridesmaid-never-a-bride, feels like she should have a shot. The strongest objections come from Shira’s Aunt Hanna (Razia Israely). She encourages her niece’s apparent wish to be independent and free. She herself has never married, but in a stunning cut, it is revealed why; the sleeves of her dress are empty — she has no arms, and consequently, never had any suitors.

And Shira herself is conflicted. She wants to please her mother and see that the child is raised properly, but she balks nonetheless. She never quite articulates her objections — instead Yaorn’s limpid face expresses every doubt with evanescent clarity. Is she still attracted to the man she was previously matched with? Or maybe she’s not especially attracted to Yochai — though looks can’t be the problem: Klein has the sculpted, bearded appeal of Adam Goldberg. Nor does Yochai, for his part, immediately warm to her. And as sensible as the arrangement seems, maybe Shira finds the prospect of marrying her sister’s spouse improper, if not creepy. But more compelling than those reasons is something else — deep, powerful, and unstated.

The situation is subtle and complicated, but Burshtein relates it with a seamless, suggestive precision. The narrative moves forward with barely perceptible ellipses, cutting from scenes before they are quite completed, and taking up the story again with the resolution of the previous scene a fait accompli. The time passes unremarked until oblique details reveal it; for example, in one moment Esther’s son is an infant, in the next he’s a toddler.

Meanwhile, each scene evokes the depths and complexities of the Haredic world. The Purim celebration, for example, which some have compared to the wedding sequence in The Godfather, provides brief, epiphanic insights into the lives and relationships of the whole community. Exterior scenes sparkle with color and vibrancy and the interiors radiate warmth and security, but the close-ups of the characters’ faces contradict that cheerful tranquility with their conflict and anxiety.

What then is the true source of Shira’s anxiety? Cornered by Yochai to explain why she won’t marry him, Shira at last says she’s afraid of death. It’s a jarring admission, but on second thought, not surprising. She’s seen her sister die from giving birth, and when she finds herself alone in the wedding chamber, her expression of terror indicates a recognition of the mortal cycle into which she has been irrevocably initiated — the void that no human arrangements can fill.

Peter Keough