The genius of writing is essential to a great film. In "Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem", it isn't simply the writing that makes this such an outstanding study of human behavior, but the acting, setting and, most importantly, the directing, as well.
Israeli siblings, Ronit and Shlomi Elkabetz, who wrote and directed, have crafted a superb story of a woman named Viviane's (Ronit Elkabetz) laborious and lengthy divorce process. Under Israeli religious marriage law, Viviane is unable to obtain a divorce because only Orthodox rabbis can grant such a request --- and also requires the husband's consent.
Set strictly in an antiseptic Jewish courtroom, with her deeply devout husband, Elisha (Simon Abkarian), her lawyer, Menashe Noy (Carmel Ben Tovim) and the rabbis present to argue the case, "Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem" is a heartbreaking, frustrating (an understatement, to say the least) and truly terrifying example of how women are still being denied their rights. It's not just in Jewish Orthodox courts in Israel, but judicial proceedings worldwide.
Vivane had already left her marital home, and has been residing with her brother and sister-in-law. She is a professional hairdresser, so she works to support herself, taking no money from Elisha. She cooks every day for her children, and has her sister-in-law deliver the meals.
By all accounts, she is a good wife and mother, but she and Elisha simply do not get along. After several years living apart, she makes the move to obtain a divorce. But the deck is stacked against her, because Elisha has no intention of agreeing to one.
Ronit, a highly-acclaimed Israeli actress, is a striking woman, with a lustrous dark mane, which at one point in the proceedings gets her into trouble. She normally wears her hair pulled back, as decreed by Hebrew law for married women, but in one scene, she decides to let it fall down around her shoulders, unbridled. The hue and cry from the judging rabbis is so fierce, one would think she actually killed her husband --- which, by that time, I would have.
It's such a touching performance by Ronit. Her face is so beautifully expressive, and her voice is low and sensuous, though her dialogue is minimal. Most of her acting is done with her eyes, facial expressions and body movements.
Ronit and Ben Tovim, her attorney, play well together. Throughout the film one might suspect that he is in love with her. But when he's confronted with that accusation, he denies it vehemently --- he does not love her in that way --- and I believed him. It's apparent, though, that he feels strongly that Viviane deserves a divorce.
Abkarian is a perfect choice for Viviane's husband. As the trial goes into its third year, it becomes obvious that something else is going on underneath all of his animosity. It finally comes to light that though he never beat Viviane, his treatment of her was deplorable. So why does this man not want to grant her freedom? Age old story --- but I won't give it away here.
The Elkabetz siblings have proven themselves master filmmakers, once again. "Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem" is startling in its simplicity but overwhelming with its message. How this did not beat out "Ida" for Best Foreign Film at the Oscars last Sunday I will never understand.
Opinion: Strong See It Now!
Talk about your low budget projects --- the Israeli feature "Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem", which was also Israel's entry for Best Foreign Film at the Oscars, was shot within a single location, with a limited number of actors, virtually no cinematography, no costume or set design, and certainly no massive list of a visual effects crew.
Do not picture a typical courtroom here, envision a small room with two tables and four chairs for the litigating parties, a small bench for the judges. And when a witness takes the stand, he or she literally stands.
Yet this movie manages to get under your skin unlike most other films you're likely to see.
Under Jewish religious law, if you want a "gett" --- a divorce document --- you must appear in a court that applies Jewish Orthodox marriage law, and your husband must agree to the terms. Those terms include the main sticking point, that the wife is "hereby permitted to all men".
In "Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem", the highly decorated, and quite attractive, Israeli actress Ronit Elkabetz plays the title character. Her husband Elisha is played by French actor Simon Abkarian. It's a battle of their wills. Both are represented by seemingly competent lawyers who present their clients' cases to a tribunal of Jewish rabbis, who are at times, judicial, and embarrassingly comical at other moments. But most assuredly, they are infuriating. That's because they are decidedly on the side of the husband, at least as they interpret the indigenous law. And they are duty-bound to preserve a marriage before any other consideration.
The central issue in this film, which is a tour de force of acting, is this: If it was clear that your spouse wanted nothing to do with you, and proved it by staying away for a number of years, would you want to stay with that person? Why Elisha, who refuses time and again to grant Viviane her gett, is so stubborn, is not entirely clear. He maintains they were meant for each other, the law is on his side, and that's that. Why Viviane doesn't simply leave him permanently, without the court's approval, is a question many will ask. One answer is she would be considered an adulteress, a true social outcast, under Jewish religious law if she consorted with a man other than her husband.
To American audiences, especially women, "Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem" will raise the hackles on the back of their necks. But on reflection, one must consider and appreciate the cultural differences in some countries. At least Israeli women are not required to cover every square inch of their face and body.
The judges of the tribunal, three rabbis, are frequently presented as caricatures of their profession, at least from a Western point of view. When the chief justice threatens Elisha with loss of his driver's license for failure to appear, his attorney relates to the court that he never learned to drive, thus no license to lose. At another point in the trial, Viviane loosens her hair and lets it fall naturally, only to be scolded by one of the judges who orders her to tie it back. It's considered an act of insolence on her part.
Elkabetz, who co-directed and co-wrote with her brother, Shlomi, is stoic much of the time, only a facial expression or gesture revealing her thoughts. But then Viviane erupts, her patience exhausted, and it's easy to see why this remarkable actress has amassed 25 wins in film festivals from Jerusalem to Palm Springs. The movie also won the Silver Hugo award at the Chicago International Film Festival last year.
"Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem" is equal parts fascinating and absurd. The total time elapsed for the trial proceedings --- five years --- is beyond ridiculous. The story is also bewildering. How can it be that this archaic law --- where a wife is legally bound to her husband --- is still in effect to this day in Israel?
Opinion: Strong See It Now!