Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem

 

Cast: Ronit Elkabetz, Simon Abkarian, Menashe Noy, Eli Gorstein

Directors: Shlomi Elkabetz, Ronit Elkabetz

Running Time: 1 hour 55 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona


Stories about the slippery complications of the legal system and the way in which such a construct fails to provide justice has intrinsic cinematic value. Films such as The Verdict, A Few Good Men, Philadelphia, and A Civil Action have all used the courtroom as a means for dramatic tension and character empathy. There's always a central figure fighting against legal difficulties, a despicable lawyer creating trumped-up arguments, and a grumpy judge who has little patience for grandstanding monologues. Such films are easily digestible because they speak to the way in which we all feel, to varying degrees, misunderstood and abused by the system. Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem is a very different kind of legal courtroom drama; one where the very idea of justice and common sense is so mired in Israeli tradition and rabbinic law that it verges on extreme farce. There are no music swells, inspirational speeches, or formulaic digressions here; just the sight of a woman drug through a divorce trial over a series of years whose often placid expression, drained of every conceivable emotion, is more powerful than the standard theatrics we get in so many Hollywood courtroom dramas.

Long-suffering doesn't even begin to explain the plight of the titular Viviane (Ronit Elkabetz, in a remarkable performance), who wants a divorce from her husband Elisha (Simon Abkarian), a man whose piety is extolled at great length, both by his lawyer as well as the main judge (Eli Gorstein). Under Israeli law, Viviane can only be divorced if her husband gives her a religious bill called a "gett", of which he is staunchly unwilling to grant. The tyrannical religious qualifiers and inherent sexism of the system is laid bare here, as Viviane is forced to plead her case before a group of rabbinic judges who more or less indulge her demands as a kind of legal nuisance. There are witnesses, testimonies, arguments and counterarguments, all of which highlight Viviane's character as above reproach, despite attempts at dragging her name through the mud. Taking place almost entirely inside the courtroom and consisting of locked down point-of-view shots, Gett quickly becomes an absurdist tragedy about the ways in which women are systematically victimized by patriarchy. More than simply a damning critique of Israeli law, the film is also an indictment of institutionalized sexism in general. It's also, rather astonishingly, a gripping humanist drama about individual freedom and courage. However, inspiration doesn't derive from impassioned speeches by Viviane's well-meaning lawyer Carmel (Menashe Noy), but instead through the tenacious perseverance and unbridled rage of a woman who will not be silenced.

Gett is the third directing collaboration between Elkabetz and her brother Shlomi after To Take a Wife and Seven Days, and it's clear that this partnership is at once assured and wholly authentic. As an actor, Ms. Elkabetz navigates a confluence of shifting emotions; from desperation and anger to head-shaking disbelief, and there's nothing more heartbreaking than her weathered face in tight close-up. It's a towering performance; nuanced and subtle, but also brimming with bottled up rage and frustration. The film, too, is unusually gripping given how it eschews sentimentality and emotional manipulation in favor of methodical conversations and philosophical inquiries. It often feels like a stage play in which the audience is locked inside a room with these characters, agonizing along with Viviane as days turn to weeks, weeks turn to months, and months turn to years.

More than anything, the beauty is in the details. The moment where Viviane takes her hair out of a bun while wearing a red blouse inside the courtroom, for example, feels like a startling reclamation of womanhood. Seen from the Western perspective, such actions may seem arbitrary, but here, Viviane's refusal to become another number in the Israeli domestic law rulebook takes on the sensation of genuine revolt. Still, the overall effect of the experience for her is physical, emotional, and psychological deterioration. The audience, too, is caught in an infuriating scenario. How long can this charade continue? Will Elisha relinquish his ego-driven need to keep his wife? When will Viviane have a complete mental breakdown? That the film remains engaging despite the hair-pulling frustration of seeing a woman unable to attain something that seems so simple comes down to the sharp writing and a game cast. These are characters revealed through their rhetoric rather than their actions in the outside world; a key point which the filmmakers underline constantly as each character circles Viviane in either an attempt to undermine or support her. Which brings us ultimately back to Ms. Elkabetz's rigorously layered performance; her face caught for long stretches in close-up. There's nowhere she can hide as an actor. Every small gesture and behavioral tic is captured, and when she finally does get the chance to cut lose with an unhinged monologue, she lets rip like a woman at long last breaking free of the shackles that bind.