Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem shows how to make a powerful, resonant drama using one setting — a film review
February 26, 2015
In their new film, the Israeli sibling writer/directors Ronit Elkabetz and Shlomi Elkabetz, pull a sort of magic trick in cinema. Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem closes out a trilogy of films following the same characters over a period of 10 years. But this film stands on its own for all the drama and tension created in one room. Earning a Golden Globe nomination for best foreign language film, the sibling team of directors from Israel also wrote the script together and Ronit, a notable actress from Israel, plays the lead, as she did in the previous two films of this trilogy, To Take a Wife (2004) and 7 Days (2008). In Gett, she once again plays the role of Viviane Amsalem, who in the previous films endured the tension of a loveless marriage, and now finally takes concrete steps toward divorce. However, in the religious state of Israel, a divorce — or a “gett” in Hebrew — must be agreed upon by the husband, as tradition holds that a wife is the property of the husband, and her devout husband Elisha (Simon Abkarian) has refused to grant her the divorce. With this imbalance of power, a gett stands more as a ceremonial affair rather than a real trial. It is even adjudicated by a court of three rabbis. The directors focus on this imbalance of power and make it the crux of the film’s drama to powerful effect.
The movie runs 115 minutes and the drama unfolds almost exclusively in the rabbinical courtroom. The only other setting is the anteroom where some small but important exchanges also happen between characters. But the directors do not waste a second in this movie. There is all kinds of tension between all of the movie’s characters, be it the husband and wife, Viviane and her lawyer (Menashe Noy) — who is implied early on to have an affectionate relationship with his client — and everyone between the varied trio of rabbis who try to sit in judgment but come to empathize with Viviane as the trial drags on (I won’t spoil its length).
Viviane has no complaint about her husband except that she does not love him. This is not a woman complaining that her husband beats her or cheats on her, which heightens the stakes in an interesting way, making Elisha’s denial for divorce all the more disturbing. This becomes a battle of wills for something bigger than personal differences, which is hard to deny between these two who yell at one other almost every time they have an exchange in the film. You get a picture of a marriage long frayed, although Elisha is not presented as a mere plot device; he is a man with a conflicting and powerful array of feelings. There’s anger, but there’s a devoted sense to tradition favoring patriarchy. In that sense, the film calls attention to the problem of tradition as adapted for civil matters, especially the absence of a woman’s voice in tradition, making the film a powerful feminist commentary on a patriarchal system.
On another level, Gett presents a tightly knotted drama where the viewer is also forced to consider perceptions and the impossibility of presenting a person to another person that is fair to that person being held up for scrutiny. This is much more than he-said/she-said argument that drives the film’s tension. The writing by the two directors shows a brilliant capacity to create drama by withholding information. Too often, Hollywood screenwriters concern themselves with characters explaining how they feel, what they will do, that it saps the drama of mystery, but Gett shows how valuable mystery is to drama, as the directors never bog down the pace of their movie to explain the differences among the characters. Instead, they allow them to gradually reveal their issues through action.
There are also a great, varied array of witnesses who offer their own perspectives, some of whom gradually reveal flaws about themselves as they try to judge the couple. All of them, down to the court aide (Gabi Amrani) are efficiently drawn characters, carrying heavy burdens of perspective. It also comes across in the creative framing and the varied angles the directors find when presenting these various characters, reflective of new points of view. Gett is a very deliberately crafted film that never feels overcooked. By turns hilarious and disturbing, Gett stands as one of the most remarkable films I saw last year. To create suspense in such a simple, enthralling way while making such a strong statement for women’s rights will surely blow many viewers’ minds.
Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem runs 115 minutes, is in Hebrew and French with English subtitles and is not rated (nothing really offensive in its material, except some raised voices, maybe). It opens Friday, Feb. 27 in the South Florida area at O Cinema Miami Beach and the Coral Gables Art Cinema, which has also invited noted film scholar and author Annette Insdorf to introduce the film during its 6:30 p.m. screening, on Saturday, Feb. 28. It opened in U.S. theaters on Feb. 13 and is scheduled to open in many more through April. To find theater listings, click “theaters” after jumping through this link. Music Box films provided an on-line screener link for the purpose of this review, and I introduced this film at one of its screenings during the Miami Jewish Film Festival.
You can also read an interview I conducted with Shlomi Elkabetz, which was just posted by the Miami New Times art and culture blog Cultist by jumping through the blog’s logo below. He talks about pulling back the curtain of these secret ceremonial divorce trials and the surprising response the film has received in his country and around the world: