"Fill the Void" is a foreign film, but it opens with a scene that will be familiar to many Americans: a young person checking out a potential mate at a grocery store.

Well, almost familiar. Americans don't usually think about marriage the first time they see somebody promising of the opposite sex. They also don't locate the person in the dairy section thanks to a quick call to the local matchmaker.

"Fill the Void," in fact, opens a window onto a world very few people have seen before: that of the Haredi, an ultra-Orthodox form of Judaism. The Israeli film is being billed as the first made by an ultra-Orthodox Jewish woman. It's certainly worth watching if you're curious about how such believers live, but that's not the only -- or even the most important -- reason to see it. Writer-director Rama Burshtein's directorial debut doesn't just illuminate a community; more important, she illuminates the human heart.

On screen
'Fill the Void'
» Rating: 4 out of 4 stars
» Starring: Hadas Yaron, Yiftach Klein, Irit Sheleg
» Director: Rama Burshtein
» Rated: PG for mild thematic elements and brief smoking
» Running time: 90 minutes

The strange combination of centuries-old tradition and modern conveniences that characterizes the Tel Aviv Haredi is captured in that first scene. Rivka (Irit Sheleg) uses her cellphone to find out from the matchmaker where in the store she and her 18-year-old daughter, Shira (Hadas Yaron), can find the young man at whom they want a peek. Gazing at milk, then taking off his spectacles to wipe them clean, the young man looks rather unassuming to the viewer. But Shira later tells her older sister that "I feel he is the one."

Esther (Renana Raz) is happily married to Yochay (Yiftach Klein), who, in a touching scene, tells her a little drunkenly at Purim, "You are my Torah." They're in love, but it's unlikely they spent more than a few hours in total together before they were married. These aren't arranged marriages, but the family and rabbi are involved in the matches.

Purim soon turns from celebration to tragedy, though, when the very pregnant Esther collapses and later dies giving birth to her first child. Shira and Yochay share a grief, but not much else, it seems. So it comes as a surprise to them both when Rivka suggests that the two marry.

The new grandmother has a motive, of course. She hears that Yochay might accept a marriage offer from a widow in Europe and take the new baby with him. "It will be the end of me if he moves to Belgium," Rivka says. The baby spends a lot of time with Rivka and Shira, while Yochay goes about his duties, and the older woman clings to the child as the only tangible thing left of her dead daughter.

But Shira, despite her seeming taste in men, is a romantic and bristles at the thought of marrying her sister's widower. "Was it pleasant? When everything was new? Were you excited to marry the most beautiful woman in the world?" she asks Yochay. "Tell me. Because I'm giving that up." But though Shira comes to see the marriage as her duty as a daughter, Rivka's plan isn't then put into motion. A rabbi offers the surprising explanation that it is feelings that matter most here, not duty.

"Fill the Void" is an astonishing film, a masterful piece of art that feels like the work of an established veteran but is instead the debut of a woman who, like the married women in her film, sees her family as the center of her life. The sexes are often separated in this community, and we see the men as the women see them: through doors, through windows or not at all, just hearing their voices drift through warm houses.

Burshtein doesn't, like an outsider might, pass judgment on the world she recreates. She doesn't argue for it, either. She simply shows us this world, with great feeling and intelligence. Her restrained characters, whose passion is there if buried, are brought to life by some talented actors, especially the young actress who plays Shira. Hadas Yaron can communicate much with a glance -- and that's exactly what Shira does, deciding her own fate in the process.