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Fill the Void is a fascinating peek inside Orthodox Jewish culture
The romance of ritual
Women watch the men's pursuits from the sidelines.
Women watch the men's pursuits from the sidelines.

Are these two going to get together or what? That's the question posed by the remarkable Israeli melodrama Fill the Void. The same question is posed by Hollywood romantic comedies, and that's basically where the similarities end. Fill the Void is a sad, intimate look at an Orthodox Hasidic community. Religion suffuses these people's lives, the way they greet each other, celebrate, marry. The writer and director is Rama Burshtein, an Orthodox Jewish woman, and this is her debut feature.

Fill the Void is set in cosmopolitan Tel Aviv, but secular Israeli life barely intrudes on this world. At one point, techno music is heard through an open window. "Close the window," someone says.

As the film begins, it is Purim. The men gather at a table. They wear dark clothes and sidelocks, and they drink and sing. In the next room, the women watch. We see a lot of this. The men busy themselves with ritual -- a wedding dance, a circumcision -- and the women watch from the next room.

The story is simple, almost elemental. With the help of a matchmaker, family members arrange the marriage of a young woman named Shira (Hadas Yaron). Then her pregnant sister dies, and the baby survives. The wedding is called off. Shira's mother, Rivka (Irit Sheleg), thinks Shira should marry the widower, Yochay (Yiftach Klein). Complications set in.

The film explores the life of this community in almost documentary detail, especially the matchmaking system. I find it fascinating. I'm used to thinking of courtship as a process involving two people who are acting wholly independently, or at least think they are. In Fill the Void, it's a complex undertaking involving negotiations, interviews, solemn meetings. It's also global in scope. We learn about engagements involving people in faraway places like New York and Belgium.

This is a lovely performance by Yaron as Shira, tense and melancholy. Her choices are limited by religion and tradition, and she also wants to do what's right: for her family, her community, her infant nephew, her sister's memory. In the film's most moving sequence, Shira sways in prayer as tears run down her face. They take quite a lot of eye makeup with them.

There are moments of dry wit, as when a rabbi is interrupted by a desperate woman who can't decide what kind of stove to buy. He shows her his stove. "Isn't it a little too low?" she asks skeptically. "Maybe it can be made higher," he replies. In another wry exchange, Yochay tells Rivka he has known his fiancée in Belgium since childhood. "What's she like?" Rivka asks. Yochay replies: "I don't remember." That, friends, is arranged-marriage humor.

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