When it played last fall’s New York Film Festival, Rama Burshtein’s debut feature, “Fill the Void,” was one of the great surprises of the autumn, a stunningly poised and mature first film that heralded the first major talent to emerge from the haredi film community in Israel. Now that the film has opened theatrically in New York, it looks — if anything — even better.
Burshtein herself is the product of the haredi world of Tel Aviv that this film intelligently and warmly depicts. It’s the kind of community in which a panicky old woman can ask her rebbe for advice on what kind of stove she should buy (and she gets a deliciously funny explanation from him, worthy of any discount appliance store commercial), but the rebbe will not exert pressure on a young woman in the matter of who she should marry.
The plot of “Fill the Void” is downright Biblical. When her sister dies in childbirth, 18-year-old Shira (Hadas Yaron) considers the possibility of putting aside her own dreams of marriage to an eligible bachelor in order to marry her brother-in-law Yochay (Yiftach Klein, best known here for his work in “Policeman”). The internal dynamics of family and friends are complicated. Her mother Rivka (Irit Seleg) is fearful that Yochay will marry a Belgian woman and disappear with her grandson, her only living tie to her late daughter. Aunt Hanna (Razia Israely, in a performance that combines dignity with deeply hidden malice) is concerned that her matchmaking efforts will have been fruitless. Shira seems to be balancing her concern for Yochay and the child against her attachment to the unmarried Frieda (Hila Feldman). Everyone has secrets, many of which Burshtein reveals slowly in a cunningly orchestrated series of communal events. Others are only implied, which makes their potential power to shape the future all the more unnerving.
Burshtein’s script is clever, moody and thoughtful, but her direction is even more than that. The film is a complex choreography of framing that reveals the inner states of the characters more fully than they can possibly know. Each of the pivotal scenes between Shira and Yochay is a carefully orchestrated blend of visual elements that suggest the increasing attraction and fear that drives the pair; the most stunning of these is a long-take two-shot in which Yochay’s white shirt and black vest echo the line of Shira’s elaborate black-and-white dress while they grapple with the emotional distance that separates them.
Burshtein composes much of the film in similar long takes, reminiscent of Otto Preminger with their suggestion of a series of confrontations between people trapped in their own agendas, driven by divergent needs. As she slowly connects a series of carefully off-center compositions, the film moves unobtrusively towards the remarkable final movement in which everyone seems to have gotten what they want, but with profoundly ambiguous results. The image of Shira, wearing her glistening white wedding dress almost like a shroud, squarely in the middle of the frame for one of the few times in the film, rocking back and forth in what seems to be a mixture of prayer and near-hysteria, is indelible. It is a stunning consummation of the film’s formal and thematic concerns, combining the visual progression towards this moment with the emotional ambiguity at the heart of its profoundly nuanced performances. In that respect she has been blessed in her choice of Yaron, who has a remarkably mobile face, capable of suggesting a veritable fever-chart of emotions in a single glance.
In short, “Fill the Void” is one of the best films of the year so far and represents a powerful calling card for its director and star.
Rama Burshtein’s “Fill the Void” opens theatrically today at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas (1886 Broadway at 63rd Street,  757-2280) and Landmark Sunshine Cinema (143 E. Houston St.  260-7289.)