A devout 18-year-old Israeli is pressured to marry the husband of her late sister. Declaring her independence is not an option in Tel Aviv's ultra-Orthodox Hasidic community, where religious law, tradition and the rabbi’s word are absolute. 

It's family first in Jewish Jane Austen-like tale.

The key image associated with this film shows a pale young bride on her knees, grey-faced and shrouded in billowing folds of bleached-out tulle – suggesting a funeral more than the wedding. In fact, the overtones are those of gothic horror, backed up by a sobering synopsis: An innocent 18-year-old virgin is pressured by her Orthodox Jewish family into marrying the husband of her dead sister and raising their newborn baby as her own.

a delicate romance and a complex coming-of-age tale

Contrary to such intimations, Fill the Void is actually a delicate romance and a complex coming-of-age tale. It’s also a revelation of how personal choice and self-expression can coexist alongside duty, obligation and arranged marriage within the close-knit world of traditional and religious communities.

Shira (Hadas Yaron, winner of Best Actress at 2012 Venice Film Festival for this role) is a luminous ingénue, eagerly looking forward to becoming a wife to the young man her Hassidic family has picked out for her. (She furtively checks him out with her mother in the dairy section of the supermarket.) When Shira’s pregnant older sister dies suddenly in childbirth, the shock and grief are palpable and all thoughts of betrothal are put on hold. Several months later, the pressure is put on Shira to keep the family together by marrying her widowed brother-in-law, Yochay (Yiftach Klein). The truth is, this isn’t a horrific proposal. With his warm brown eyes, handsome face and gentle flirtation, Yochay is a good man. But for Shira, who becomes increasingly distraught with indecision, the marriage will mean sacrificing her romantic dreams of sharing 'first times’ with her husband.

The conflict and growing chemistry between the leads is played out with minimal dialogue and many long takes and extreme close-ups, allowing emotions to play beautifully across the actor’s faces. Cinematographer Asaf Sudri keeps the focus shallow and the light soft, bright and almost fuzzy, especially when conveying Shira’s youthful intensity.

Writer-director Rama Burshtein is herself an Orthodox Jew, and the first Orthodox Jewish woman to make a feature film for mainstream distribution. In her director’s statement she references the works of Jane Austen as a key inspiration, and it’s easy to see the parallels: both focus on the pursuit of marriage as the most momentous determinant of a woman’s fate; and both portray morally sensitive and highly emotional protagonists who must negotiate highly confined and constrained social worlds. Fill the Void may be set in modern day Tel Aviv, but for the female characters, life is lived within the small domestic spaces of living rooms, kitchens and bedrooms, with the odd excursion to kindergarten, synagogue or wedding.

Intriguing, affecting and more than a little disturbing, the experience of watching Fill the Void is akin to travelling through a keyhole into a cloistered, almost pre-modern world. Viewers may be surprised to find themselves sympathising with the parents and Rabbis who hold so much power here; and fearing the fate of spinsterhood almost as much as the young women in the story. That Burshtein refuses to give us a perfect resolution of romance with tradition is part of her film’s thoughtful and compassionate power.