A Commentary on the film, “Fill the Void”
Original title: “Lemale et ha’halal” - A Film by Rama Burshtein
Commentary by John Bennison
[Post your comments at the end of the commentary!]
“What’s love got to do, got to do with it?
What’s love, but a second-hand emotion -
Who needs a heart, when a heart can be broken?”
Singer Tina Turner, 1984 - song by T. Britten and G. Lyle
In the hit movie, “Her” (nominated for three Oscars this year, including ‘Best Picture’), a lonely writer played by Joaquin Phoenix develops an unlikely relationship with his newly purchased operating system that’s designed to meet his every need.
Hey -- for the skeptic -- it doesn't hurt that the computerized voice is that of Scarlett Johansson.
With some degree of confidence my own long-standing Valentine would accept my invitation again this year I decided to see how Siri would respond if I ever found myself alone on Valentine’s Day. So I pulled my iPhone out of my pocket and asked, “Siri, would you be my Valentine?”
The voice coming out of my hand-held device hesitated for a moment, and then replied, “Oh, this is awkward.”
Not being one to take an obvious hint, this dullard asked again, ““Siri, would you be my Valentine?”
Tactfully, she replied, “That’s sweet, but I have other plans.”
What do you mean “other plans,” I thought to myself? You’re part of my phone’s operating system! So I asked one last time, “Siri, would you be my Valentine?”
She bluntly replied, “I’d love to, but I lack corporeal form.” Seriously? Corporeal form?
But that’s the cold, hard truth of the matter. And in the end, it leaves one asking the predictable question whether artificial intelligence and the mere longing for romance can really offer anything more than the illusion – albeit alluring sometimes -- of a genuine emotional connection for lonely hearts everywhere. Everybody loves somebody (or some thing) sometime, right? Call it a mate, a partner, a companion, a significant other, or anything you like.
Nowadays, when debate over same-sex unions attempts to redirect the conversation to legal arguments about things like equal protection under the law, or the threat to “traditional” marriage, at the heart of the matter it’s essentially about the matters of the heart.
And -- as alien as the marriage customs of Hasidic Judaism may be to our own contemporary way of living and looking at the world -- it is the same question that is at the heart of the storyline and setting in Israeli director Rama Burshtein’s film, Fill the Void.
So, what’s love got to do with it?
Sometimes described as a Jane Austen-like melodrama set in the ultra-Orthodox Haredi Jewish community of Tel Aviv, Fill the Void tells the story of a young woman who is pressured and/or persuaded by family entanglements into an arranged levirate marriage to an older widower with a young child.
In a day and age when popular sentiment suggests anyone ought be allowed to betroth oneself to whomever one chooses and call it marriage, the notion that social custom, religious dictums, cultural traditions and familial obligations should interfere with one’s individual rights may seem a bit rigid and arcane, at best. At first view, this might certainly seem to be the case with Fill the Void.
In young Shira’s world, the women huddle in silence on the sidelines, as the men confer and jest, sing and celebrate the great feast days. The rabbi presides over every detail of communal life, arbitrarily dispensing financial assistance and practical advice alike.
Then, when her modest hope of young romance in an arranged marriage quickly evaporates, Shira is simultaneously confronted with some real life and death choices that are far more complex than romantic first love. There is a void that is deeper than a young girl’s dreams can possibly fill.
Still, it is important to note she is not required to do anything more than whatever she chooses to do. In the end, the only obligation she has is to choose.
In one scene she visits a kindergarten, where she plays her accordion for the young children who are ready to dance with delight. But instead of a lively tune, the children are befuddled, as Shira finds herself playing an introspective, almost mournful song. Without a word spoken, it exquisitely depicts her own unspoken rite of passage into the more complicated world of adulthood.
To be sure, the film is no action-packed thriller. It is a subtle and nuanced look at real life. A gesture here and facial expression there takes you on a quiet, emotional journey that leaves the viewer wrestling with the same messy choices as Shira.
In the end, it’s not so much a question of what love’s got to do with it all; but rather, what kind of love might be sufficient to fill the void.
"At the heart of the matter it’s all about the matters of the heart."
The Legend of St. Valentines Day:
A Corollary Tale
In ancient Rome, February fourteenth was the time young men chose their sweethearts for the spring festival. Fearing potential conscripts for military service would prefer a little romance to trudging off to war, Claudius II forbade the solemnization of such marriages during his brief reign (268-270 CE). When a priest at that time named Valentine defied Claudius’ edict, he was thrown in prison and condemned to death.
As the legend goes -- while Valentine was in prison awaiting execution -- he bestowed an act of kindness on the jailer’s blind daughter. As a result, the girl miraculously regained her sight; just in time to read a farewell note, signed simply, “From your Valentine.”
The fanciful tale does not say if Valentine had any romantic notions for the sightless girl. It does suggest however that just as human passions are impossible to forbid for long, neither can acts of loving compassion be banished. To the contrary, such love is not blind. Hence, Valentines Day is as much about such acts of loving kindness, as it is about the romantic gestures more commonly associated with the observance.
So much for flowers and chocolate.
What do you think? Post your comments below and join the dialogue!