By no accident does Fill The Void begin in a supermarket. That a religious mother and daughter would spy on a potential suitor in as banal a site as a supermarket is funny precisely because it is banal. But as much as the scene plays with a caricatured image of Haredi women (where else would a housewife be outside the home?), it plays against it. The story begins with a seal of disapproval—not from a rebbe, but rather curiously, from the gaze of a mother and daughter—eying a potential match for the daughter. The young girl’s possibilities might be limited, but she has choice in the matter. Or so it seems. After all, it’s she and her mother who snoop on the Hasidic suitor in question—not the other way around. The viewer is not entering, as framed by the opening scene, a matchmaking marketplace where women can be acquired like a product on an aisle shelf.
Fill The Void is a tale chock full of reversals—of things that lie outside law altogether, in the realm of the extrajudicial. Unsurprisingly, the film begins with the backward temporality of Purim. And as the plot moves forwards, the more it unravels backwards. A young mother dies, leaving her widowed, crestfallen husband with a motherless child—a mirror image of yibum, the Levirite marriage, where one brother dies and the next brother marries his sister-in-law. But the film stages the scenario in reverse. And the reversal is instructive. An unexpected tragedy forces the family to confront what happens when a void, a chasm, a cleavage, opens—when not law, but sticky interpersonal subjectivities, rule supreme. What happens when religious actors in their daily performance of ritual have no script from which to read? When the choreography has-yet-to-be-penciled-in? And, in this space of extrajudiciality, is filled the precarity of feeling. An unmarried, eighteen-year old girl must navigate the vertigo of defining where agency and restriction lie in a space outside the bounds and boundaries of law. As revealed in a most poignant scene, the rebbe asks her:
“[So] what does the daughter feel about the match?”
“This is not a matter of feeling,” she retorts with restraint.
“This is only a matter of feeling,” the Rebbe responds gingerly.
The film captures, with a minimalist aesthetic, the claustrophobia of a family in mourning. Their apartment becomes a feeling organism—radically open at times and frightfully closed at others. It can stretch to accommodate swarms of guests and then retract back into itself, with the touch of a sliding door, into chambers of intimate solitude. Alcohol reveals secrets. Cigarettes calm nerves. And the Karliner niggun, “Kah Echsof,” is sung earnestly as the women stare blankly onto the dishes of a set Shabbos table.
And when she quakes tearfully in a wedding gown with the purest devotion of dveykus to the recitation of Tehillim—beside her mother and aunt—the camera navigates across the ritual geography of the wedding. It glides from the wedding chair—a safe domain of feminine kinship—to the chuppah—a liminal, makeshift home—and ends in the yihud room. Between the seen quivering moments of intimacy (with the divine) and the unseen quivering moments of intimacy (with her husband) is formed a visual dialectic between the concealed and revealed. And as soon as her husband enters the yichud room and places his fur hat on the rack, the camera pans on her face—wan with the terror of the unexpected. The movie ends. Black fills the screen. But so much is filled in the void.