Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem (Music Box Films, NR)

gett 75 - CopyThis film feels similar to a stage play, and the restricted setting also creates a sense of claustrophobia similar to that of being trapped in a bad marriage.

 

 

gett 500 - Copy

Viviane (Ronit Elkabetz) and Elisha (Simon Abkarian) haven’t gotten along for years, and Viviane finally had enough. She moved out several years ago, taking the kids with her, and has been supporting them with what she earns as a hairdresser. She’s not asking for alimony or child support, but just wants to be divorced so she can be free of her husband and get on with her life. In the United States, this one would be a no-brainer, but in Israel, a woman cannot obtain a divorce without the consent of her husband. Israel may be a secular state in many ways, but religious law governs marriage and divorce, and that law gives disproportionate power to the husband.

Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem follows Viviane and Elisha through years, literally, of court hearings, during which she tries to obtain a divorce. Almost all the action takes place in a small courtroom, before a panel of three Orthodox rabbis (all male, of course), with various witnesses called to testify and be cross-examined by the lawyers representing Viviane and Elisha (Menashe Noy and Sasson Gabay, respectively).

This film feels similar to a stage play, and the restricted setting also creates a sense of claustrophobia similar to that of being trapped in a bad marriage. At the same time, the largely black and white palette of both the set and the characters’ clothing creates a sense of unreality that emphasizes how removed the court’s deliberations are from real life as it is lived outside the courtroom. When Viviane comes to court one day in a red dress, and lets her hair down, it’s almost as shocking as if she had worn a bikini.

Elkabetz, who co-wrote and co-directed Gett with her brother Shlomi Elkabetz, dominates the film, even when she is forced to listen passively as men toy with her fate. Her hugely expressive face registers every possible emotion, and when she does have the opportunity to speak her eloquence cuts through the court’s dithering abstractions and technicalities. None of that matters in the court, however, any more than does the evidence presented as to the emotionally abusive nature of her marriage (“It’s easy to blame the one who yells. The one who whispers venom is innocent.”) that emerges over the course of the trial.

Elisha, in contrast, is regularly a font of passive-aggressive behavior, speaking French in the courtroom although he’s been warned not to and skipping court dates because he knows that every delay will increase his wife’s torment. More to the point, he knows that there will be no consequences to him for his delaying tactics, because husband and wife are not equal before the court. The man can withhold the gett (a document necessary for divorce) for any reason or no reason, while the woman holds no such power. He’s a man who is thus very sure of himself, thanks to the privileges guaranteed by his Y chromosomes, and feels no obligation to take his wife’s feelings or desires into account. In that, he and the court are in full agreement.

I’m sure many will bridle at the comparison, but Gett reminds me of another notable foreign film of recent years. That would be A Separation, an Iranian film that won the 2012 Foreign-Language Film Oscar, which also uses the case of an individual couple to illustrate the barriers faced by women in a male-run theocracy. The difference is that although we’re used to considering Iran in those terms, it may come as a shock to realize that sometimes Israel doesn’t look all that different. | Sarah Boslaugh

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