The term “coming of age film” generally conjures thoughts of teenage angst, parent-child arguments, and sexual exploration; arranged marriages and rabbinic counsels are typically absent on this list. However, Fill the Void adheres to the “coming of age” narrative while presenting an atypical setting: a Hassidic community in Tel Aviv, Israel. Rama Burshtein’s directorial debut is a quiet examination of a youngest daughter’s role in an ultra orthodox Jewish family, and thus the generic nuances we are so familiar with are subdued.
Shira Mendlemen is anxiously anticipating her imminent engagement to a young man who her family has deemed suitable. She is joined in her excitement by her mother and sister, both of whom dole out counsel and advice in attempt to calm her nervous excitement. Shira’s older sister Esther is already married and heavily pregnant with her first child with her husband Yochay. Esther is the idealized character in the narrative¬— her beauty and kindness are often referenced— but where this may create sibling rivalry in a Hollywood movie, there is only admiration from Shira. Braxton-hix contractions in an early scene foreshadow that Esther’s pregnancy will not end happily, and so it goes. During the Purim celebrations the family finds that Esther has fainted in her room and is rushed to the hospital. Esther dies, but her son Mordechai lives and is taken in and cared for by Shira. Because of the tragedy of Esther’s death, Shira’s engagement is put on hold and ultimately cancelled by the family of the suitor. Rivka, the Mendelmen matriarch suggests that Shira take her sister’s place and marry the newly widowed Yochay. My cynical expectations were disproven, as Shira is never forced into this arrangement. In fact, her family reiterate several times that who she marries is for her to decide. Ultimately, she makes the choice that for the good of the family, as well as for her own happiness, she will marry Yochay. The movie ends with them entering their nuptial chamber and sharing a private look for the first time as a married couple.
As prerequisite for viewing this film, I would suggest conducting some research about Jewish holidays (particularly Purim) and Hassidic traditions. Understanding the household chain of command and the rabbi’s role in family decision-making is key to interpreting the plot. While the gender roles in this community are solidified in such a way that many Western feminists might find repressive, a closer examination of the control each woman exerts over her given circumstances belies a respect and autonomy within this conservative community.
I highly recommend watching Fill the Void for a fresh take on the “coming of age” film that also succeeds in presenting a richly nuanced, and positive portrayal of an ultra orthodox life.
By Ashleigh Bowers
Ashleigh is a 20-something grandpa from Durham, North Carolina. If you make it past her fortress of books you might find her chatting endlessly (to no one in particular) about the sonic characterisations of women in film. To that end, she is currently pursuing a dual masters in Cinema Studies and Sound Design from Savannah College of Art & Design. She knows every word to The Princess Bride, is a sucker for Centre Stage and Bring it On and consiers director Todd Haynes her queer spiritual soulmate. You can follow her music-making alter-ego Brett.Ashleigh on Soundcloud here, or read her irreverent tweets @13cupsofcoffee.