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'Fill the Void': Israel's Haredi sect explored from within ★★★

An elegant miniature, Rama Burshtein's "Fill the Void" labors under a narrative inevitability, but it's artful work nonetheless.

We're in the hushed confines and spaces of the ultra-Orthodox community of Tel Aviv. Barely 18, the daughter of a rabbi, Shira — played by Hadas Yaron, whose incisive, clean-lined work won the best actress prize at the Venice Film Festival — has a promising prospect for a husband. The plans are plunged into disarray when, on Purim, her older sister dies during childbirth, leaving the late sister's grieving husband alone with a child and weighing decisions he'd rather put off.

In a trim 90-minute running time, Burshtein's feature-film debut manages to pack a lot of incident without seeming rushed or harried about it. When the husband, Yochay, played by Yiftach Klein, makes noises about moving out of Israel to marry a Belgian widow, Shira's mother (Irit Sheleg, a deft underplayer) sets her desires into motion to keep the family close. Why not put Shira together with Yochay and call it a match? "Isn't it better," as she puts it, "than marrying a stranger?"

The answer is: Of course these two belong together. Therein lies a promising debut film's limitation. When Shira picks up her accordion and soothes Yochay's crying child, early on, we're cued to the rightness of the match. When the cinematographer (a fine one, Asaf Sudry) floods the frame with pearly, heavenly sunshine as these two are nudged together by tragedy and circumstance, the union is pre-sanctified. Much is made of the age difference between the two, and Shira's reluctance to hitch her wagon to a middle-aged man (the actors were born 18 years apart), but with the charismatic and classically handsome Klein playing the part, and Shira's obvious attraction to the character, there's little story tension regarding the outcome.

"Fill the Void" nonetheless bodes well for its filmmaker, who was born in New York and received training in Israel. In her director's notes, Burshtein writes of her ultra-Orthodox Haredi community: "Our political voice is loud — even boisterous — but our artistic and cultural voice remains muffled and faint." Without violating her instinctive grace and tact, I hope Burshtein's future efforts deepen and expand what's already there, evidenced by her careful, close work with a screen full of fine actors.

mjphillips@tribune.com

'Fill the Void' -- 3 stars
MPAA rating:
PG (for mild thematic elements and brief smoking)
Running time: 1:30; in Hebrew with English subtitles
Opens: Friday

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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