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Film Review

Fill the Void

The world of the ultra-Orthodox or Hasidic Jewish communities, both here and in Israel, is very insular and usually only fully revealed to those who are a part of that world. Outsiders, including most Jews, rarely see more than the outward manifestations of that hermetic world, such as the the peculiar clothing for men: black coat, black pants, black hats, and white shirts. Most with beards and payes (sidelocks). All women wear very conservative clothing with married women's hair fully covered. And of course with typically large families. These are very tight knit communities with outsiders not welcome. Local rabbis have great influence in these communities, and to outsiders, it seems to be an attempt to recreate the world of 17th Century Poland. Most European Orthodox communities were obliterated during the Holocaust, and the few survivors emigrated after the war to Canada, the United States, and Israel. Today these communities are thriving from a population standpoint, but the level of poverty is surprisingly high because many men only study Torah and do not hold paying jobs. In Israel there is growing resentment of the control that the ultra-Orthodox exert in determining citizenship, marriage rules, etc. Some sects even deny the legitimacy of the State of Israel because only the Messiah could create it. Draft exemptions in Israel for the yeshiva scholars is another festering issue.

Not surprisingly, the depiction on film of ultra-Orthodox communities has tended to be either negative or simply as a colorful backdrop to other stories. So the arrival of an Israeli film that offers a sympathetic portrayal of an ultra-Orthodox community is unusual. More surprising still is that the film maker is an Orthodox female filmmaker, Rama Burshtein, producing her first film, "Fill the Void". Burshtein's film won 7 Ophirs, the Israel equivalent of an Oscar, and was Israel's nominee for the Academy Awards. She tells the story of an ultra-Orthodox rabbi in Tel Aviv with two daughters, the eldest, Esther, now married and pregnant. The younger daughter, Shira, is 18 and tentatively engaged to a young yeshiva scholar. Near the beginning of the story, Esther dies, but her baby lives. Esther's husband, Yochay, is devastated, as is her family. The scenes of the family and friends grieving and giving their condolences are very moving. When Yochay announces that he will re-marry, a woman from Belgium, and move there, Shira's mother is upset. She cannot bear to have her only grandson taken away. She decides that it would make more sense for Shira to marry Yochay. Shira is bright, attractive, and good with the baby. But Shira is stunned, and feels that she would be dishonoring her sister's memory. Her mother and her father, the rabbi, try to persuade her, but Shira is resentful of being forced into a relationship. Yet Shira loves her parents deeply and the conflict between her own feelings and her sense of obligation toward her parents and culture is at the heart of Burshtein's tale. The story continues to a surprising ending that is both powerful and ambivalent.

"Fill the Void" is an unusually sympathetic and intimate look at a community that is defined by ritual and custom. To outsiders, their customs seem harshly conformist, but to those within, it provides a genuinely loving, supportive environment, albeit with personal constraints, especially for women. There is a revelatory scene where people in need line up to see the rabbi, asking for money,which is invariably given. Most of the scenes are interiors, often with lingering closeups of the actors, which seems to emphasize the closed quality of the culture. The acting is very natural yet accomplished, so much so that the actors truly appear to be Hassidic. The story flows easily and the viewer is soon swept in; even the blessings accompanying many everyday acts seem natural. Of course it is easier for men in this environment. The women are definitely respected, but clearly subordinate, and expected to marry early and have children. I was very moved by this fine film, and Burshtein forced me to rethink my sense of discomfort with their culture. Opened last week at the Clay and the Rafael (San Rafael); running time is 90 minutes. To paraphrase an old ad, you don't have to be Jewish to like "Fill the Void".

A number of readers have asked if they were dropped from the review list. Not at all. Have made a number of trips to the Midwest and the East Coast in the past three months for architectural meetings and antique shows, so just haven't had the time to write. One film I regret not reviewing is "Mud", a very American story of two boys who encounter a strange character hiding on an island in the Mississippi. Powerful and mystical.

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