A mother and daughter tentatively peek around supermarket aisles of canned foods, inching ever closer for a better look at a young bachelor from a good family. Truthfully, there isn’t much to distinguish him from the other young Hasidic men pushing carts through this Tel Aviv grocery, but just the sight of him sends 18-year-old Shira Mendelman (Hadas Yaron), soaring into stratospheric swells of emotion. This goofy, bearded young shopper represents her entire future, her potential husband through an arranged marriage, and her entry into a grown-up world she both longs for and fears.
And just as the rabbi’s daughter Shira gets a thrill out of a few fleeting looks, we as an audience we get the voyeuristic pleasure of a glimpse behind the curtain of an ultra-Orthodox Israeli community, one that is not exactly publicity-hungry. This is a culture that values faith, tradition and family above all else, but still struggles to leave wiggle room for personal ambition and deeply held feelings within the ridigid structure of ritual. Shira is busy preparing for the home life ordained for her, when fate cruelly intervenes; her older sister dies in childbirth, leaving her brother-in-law Yochay (Yiftach Klein) with an infant to care for on his own. The local matchmakers are in a frenzy trying to find a suitable wife for the grieving widower
Can identity and free will survive in a place that puts dogma at the center of all things, and what can be done if God’s path is not the one you want?
Writer-director Rama Burshtein is herself a member of the deeply conservative “Haredim,” and while she’s made several other films, this is her breakthrough to the wider world. Fill the Void was a runner-up as Israel’s official Oscar selection, and Hadas won best actress at the Venice film festival, and deservedly so. Her performance is marvelous, complete with long close-ups so intimate they border on intrusive. The whole cast, largely unknown here, is a revelation, adding depth and sensitivity to characters that could easily have been as flat as matzo. While the film is utterly fascinating as a piece of ethnography, there are times when the drama falters; subplots are abandoned haphazardly and some conclusions feel jumpy. Still the gorgeously rendered imagery of the men in their thick beards and stark, black furry hats, and the women in their flowery, almost baroque outfits, gives the movie an otherworldly feel. These people possess a level of dedication to faith that can seem absurd from the outside, but it is real and human, and true to a notion of love that comes from somewhere outside ourselves.
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