The most beneficial by-product of the national debate on gay marriage involves a sharply increased, society-wide willingness to take the institution of matrimony with the seriousness it deserves. Folk-rock balladeer Joni Mitchell’s 1970 lyrics insisting that “we don’t need no piece of paper from the City Hall/Keeping us tied and true” now seem hopelessly dated in a popular culture that suddenly treats “the right to marry” as an elevated, profoundly important privilege. This trend has become so pronounced that even the most militantly secular precincts of the prestige media have recently embraced a stunning little movie from a fervently religious subculture that treats the legal and spiritual union of two souls as an event of transcendent personal and cosmic consequence.
The Israeli film Fill the Void represents a breakthrough on many fronts. For one thing, it constitutes a rare import from the Jewish state’s busy film industry that makes no reference to the intractable conflict with the Palestinians and delivers no searing indictments of perceived shortcomings in Israeli society. Instead, the film offers a fond, fully realized, uncannily convincing portrayal of a family crisis that unfolds entirely within the confines of the devout, self-contained Haredi community of Tel Aviv.
The story focuses on Shira, a sunny but sensitive 18-year-old who, in the midst of preparations for the joyous festival of Purim, has begun the serious business of meeting with young men who might make a suitable bridegroom. As played by the luminous newcomer Hadas Yaron (whose riveting performance earned her the 2012 best actress award at the Venice Film Festival), Shira emerges as observant in every sense: She views each detail of her world as if it were freshly created and revealed to her for the first time, managing to share both wonder and awe with the audience. That is particularly true when her saintly older sister dies in childbirth, leaving a numbed widower, Yochay (the smoldering Yiftach Klein), and the newborn boy.
To provide for this baby and stabilize his own life, the stricken father considers a quickly arranged marriage to a widow in Belgium, but his mother-in-law is devastated at the prospect of her only grandchild leaving the country. She pushes relentlessly for Shira to accept engagement to her late sister’s husband in order to cement his position as a permanent member of the family. Shira offers spirited resistance to this plan, in part out of the well-founded fear that she could never replace her sister in Yochay’s affections. In the course of battling her mother’s desperate desire to keep the family intact and in place, Shira struggles to discern God’s will at the same time she tries to understand and balance her own.
This intense, decidedly old-fashioned saga has drawn unanimous praise. Manohla Dargis of the New York Times called it “an enthralling, stirring tale” crafted with “a sure, delicate touch and great intimacy.” Peter Keough of the Boston Globe hailed Fill the Void as “an accomplished and intense drama that has almost Chekhovian overtones” while noting that “the exterior scenes sparkle with color and vibrancy, and the interiors radiate warmth and security.”
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this unprecedented artistic triumph involves the self-disciplined piety of its writer-director, 46-year-old Rama Burshtein. She counts as the first successful director, female or male, to emerge from within a Haredi community that generally frowns on watching movies, let alone making them. Born in New York City, but raised in Tel Aviv from the age of one, Burshtein studied motion-picture production at Jerusalem’s Sam Spiegel Film and Television School before she found herself drawn to Orthodox life at age 26. Married for 18 years to a psychologist and ritual circumciser (mohel), she is the mother of four children, the eldest 16, who have been raised in the uncompromising Haredi tradition. She told the New York Times that “my privilege is that I know both worlds.”
In this regard she followed another incongruous figure in the generally left-leaning Israeli film industry who combines a rich secular, artistic background with the deep religious commitment he developed as he approached middle age. Shuli Rand became one of the nation’s leading stage actors before he moved to Jerusalem, joined the Breslover Hassidic movement, and fathered seven children. In 2004 he wrote the screenplay for Ushpizin (or “Sukkot Guests”) about an impoverished but pious religious returnee who welcomes some criminal friends from his rough secular past for the annual Feast of Tabernacles. Rand also played the lead in the film under the condition that he’d perform alongside his own wife, despite her lack of any prior acting experience; he wouldn’t consider bending Orthodox rules of modesty to play tender scenes with any other woman. Though it relied on a veteran secular director (Gidi Dar), Ushpizin broke new ground in portraying Haredi characters as complex and sympathetic human beings rather than exotic stereotypes.
In the same sense, Fill the Void arrives at an ideal moment to help close the gap between mainstream Israeli society and the too often isolated and misunderstood world of the Haredim. In the most recent Israeli elections, the most spectacular gains went to a political party (Finance Minister Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid) that pledged as its principal priority to end the military service exemption for citizens often described in the Western press as “ultra-Orthodox.” Many religious leaders (including the modern Orthodox who now make up a majority of the IDF officer corps) resent that designation. To them, Haredim aren’t more fervent, unbending, or authentic in their Orthodoxy; they merely take a different approach. The streimlach (cylindrical beaver fur hats) and payus (side curls) favored by most of the characters in Fill the Void aren’t more Orthodox than the knit yarmulkes favored by religious nationalists; they just reflect a distinctive European tradition. Calling Haredim “ultra-Orthodox” would be the equivalent of calling the Amish “ultra-Protestant.”
And those same Amish have inspired a bizarre literary fad that has registered on bestseller lists even as Fill the Void reached appreciative audiences in 20 nations. At least 86 titles scheduled for release in 2013 count as “Bonnet Rippers”—romance novels set in Amish country. The Wall Street Journal reported that the three top authors of Amish romances—Beverly Lewis, Cindy Woodsmall, and Wanda Brunstetter—have sold among them an astonishing 24 million copies of their books.
The appeal of these entertainments is that they restore notions of dignity, honor, permanence, and self-control to the pursuit of females by males, and males by females. Relationships that develop for months or years before a kiss can easily build greater intensity and fervor than the wham-bam approach of contemporary hook-up culture. Many modern romantics, both men and women, find it refreshing to savor heroines who evaluate potential mates based on their nobility rather than their six-pack abs. Yochay, the brooding widower in Fill the Void, will flutter vulnerable hearts like a Mr. Darcy in side curls, and Rama Burshtein cheerfully admits she felt inspired by the Austen titles she hungrily devoured when she was younger.
She also perplexingly acknowledges to interviewers her admiration for Tarantino’s hyper-violent fantasies though her Haredi masterpiece displays far more obvious debts to Austen than to Quentin. In fact, the only scene that even hints at brutality or sex occurs near the very conclusion of Fill the Void as Shira at last prepares for her own wedding in penitential prayer. The intense close-up of the pained face of the young protagonist, lost in the frilly splendor of her otherworldly bridal gown, shows her swaying up and down in ecstatic jerks that seem at first both erotic and vaguely violent. She is reciting the viduy—the Yom Kippur confessional that each bride and groom traditionally chants in the final prayer service before the nuptials, culminating a day of fasting and introspection intended to render them new and cleansed to begin a fateful, fresh phase of life. In this indelible scene, Shira casts light on the true meaning of the word Haredim—which stems from Harada, suggesting fear and trembling as Isaiah 66:55 describes “those who tremble at the word of the Lord.”
No film has ever made a better case for the awesome power of the marriage bond, and for the significance of the commitments that bride and groom make that could shape lives for countless generations. Regardless of current efforts to deploy political means to redefine the essential nature of that marital intimacy, Fill the Void will remind attentive viewers that it is the God-like potential of birth and eternity that infuses marriage with its literally death-defying power.