In the midst of a sweltering 90-degree afternoon in New York yesterday I ducked into a theater to beat the heat. Considering the weather, this normally would've been a perfect opportunity to sample some light, escapist summertime fare; instead I decided to take a chance on a film that was highly recommended to me by an evangelical Christian friend. Fill the Void, an Israeli film written and directed by an Hasidic woman and set in the present-day ultra orthodox Hasidic community of Tel Aviv, is about as far from my cultural and religious experience as a film could be and yet I found it to be a small, quiet gem of a film. It is universal story of love, longing and societal/familial pressure that has the soul of a Jane Austen novel.
Shira is an 18-year-old girl who is beginning to be introduced to potential husbands by her mother and a matchmaker when tragedy strikes. Her pregnant older sister, Esther, dies while giving birth to a baby boy leaving her brother in law, Yochay, alone with an infant. As she and her family help care for the baby, Shira is then presented with the choice: does she continue on her search for a match closer to her own age and experience or does she marry Yochay who is planning on leaving Israel to pursue an arranged match in Belgium?
Suffice it to say, this isn't exactly Sex and the City 3.
There is a bit of magic in 46-year-old writer/director Rama Burshtein's work. She is able to transcend the superficial strangeness of the ultra orthodox milieu so that--rather than feeling as though we are voyeurs inside a very peculiar, closed culture--viewers are immersed in a taut, moving love story. It portrays a contemporary, interconnected world that is in stark contrast to the epidemic of bad sex among atomized college students that I discussed in my recent column, "Sexual Devolution."
Burshtein was born in New York to a secular, liberal Jewish family and moved to Israel when she was a year old. After finishing film school 20 years ago, she went on a religious search of her own and made the journey to orthodoxy. Her first film for a general audience is proof that she has a unique abilty to bridge the enormous cultural divide between the world she grew up in and the world in which she now resides. In interviews she is wonderfully warm, energetic and deeply intelligent. Her frequent references to God, faith and the afterlife would not seem at all out of place if uttered by any filmmaker who takes issues of faith seriously.
Somehow Burshtein has made an incredibly romantic—even erotic—film in which no one even kisses, much less has sex. It's as if the strict religious/cultural rigor of Hasidic life creates a safe space for a deeply charged atmosphere between single men and women to flourish. They live in a world sheltered from what outsiders might consider both the good and bad of modern life. No doubt the ultra orthodox world presents enormous challenges that most of us would find hard to reconcile but in Burshtein's hands it becomes a world of innocence, mystery, beauty and electricity that is reminiscent of first love.
Given what we are witnessing today on American campuses and in reports about hook up culture it is difficult not sense that—despite all of our worldly sophistication—perhaps we are the ones filling the void.