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‘Fill the Void’ explores the bonds of tradition

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Shira Hadas Yaron

Yochay Yiftach Klein

Esther Renana Raz

Aaron Chaim Sharir

Sony Pictures Classics presents a film written and directed by Rama Burshtein. In Hebrew, with English subtitles. Running time: 90 minutes. Rated PG (for mild thematic elements and brief smoking). Opening Friday at the Music Box.

Updated: July 15, 2013 1:22PM

A young woman about to choose the man she will marry is torn between her own desires and the wishes of her devout ultra-Orthodox Jewish fa­mily. We know where the American version of this story would go — the triumph of individual happiness over the antiquated strictures of the community. But “Fill the Void,” Israel’s official entry for the 2012 foreign film Oscar, is a sympathetic, lay­­ered portrayal, rich with detail, that earns its more complex and resonant conclusion.

Born in the States, writer-director Rama Burshtein grew up in Israel in a non-Orthodox home, studied film and chose to become “baal teshuva” or one who “returns” to the the practice of traditionally observant Judaism. This movie reflects her deep understanding of liberal and conservative notions of religious practice as a connection to the divine and the many variations in between. A gifted filmmaker, she understands the way the tiniest details tell the story and evokes utterly natural, intimate performances from her actors. She shows us a world of strict and demanding tradition, but it is the context for characters who are never caricatured. Vividly drawn, they are por­­trayed with respect and affection.

Like a Jane Austen novel, the primary concern for Shira (a shimmeringly lovely Hadas Yaron) and her family is a propitious match, and the cultural structures for making this decision are clearly defined. In this community, young men and women have no opportunities for interaction until they are identified as potential partners by their parents. Then they have one heart-wrenchingly awkward meeting to decide whether they can spend a lifetime together. In these meetings, there is no shilly-shallying about what they majored in or their favorite music. A few simple questions about their aspirations for family life are all they get.

We first see Shira and her mother sneaking a look at a prospective groom in the aisles of a the grocery store. Shira believes he could be the one. She is excited and happy. But then tragedy strikes. Her sister, Esther, dies in childbirth. Her widower, Yochay (a smolderingly handsome Yiftach Klein), has an offer to marry a woman from Belgium, which would mean moving and taking the baby. The only way to keep Esther’s child close to the family is for Yochay to marry Shira.

Suddenly, Shira has to cope with an entirely different set of pressures and a new sense of power. She has to sort through her feelings without any real opportunity to learn how Yochay is responding. Could he want her? Or is he being forced? What would it be like to be married to someone who has not just been married before, but to her sister?

American films have ranged from clumsy to dreadful in portraying the Orthodox community, with Renee Zellwegger in “A Price Above Rubies” and Melanie Griffith’s “A Stranger Among Us” as notorious failures. Burshtein’s perspective as someone who chose that life is refreshing in its focus on the lives, relationships and choices of the characters. The details of their religious practice draw us in as illumination, not anthropology.

The dynamics of Shira’s parents’ relationship play out in the celebration of Purim, a holiday less observant Jews may think of as a minor celebration for children to wear costumes and shake noisemakers. For these people, it is also a time to encourage those the community who needs help to ask for it and for those who can to give it. It is Shira’s father who receives the requests. But it is her mother who brings the money. In the oblique talk they have about Shira’s choice and the factors to be considered, we see the many layers of family, community, and religious observance twined together.

Nell Minow is the film critic for the site

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