In Israel, a woman seeking to divorce her husband, whether she is religious or not, must submit to the country’s religious marriage laws. Orthodox rabbis have sole authority to legalize a marriage. They also are uniquely empowered to grant a divorce by issuing a “gett,” a document obtainable only through the religious courts. Should the husband choose to preserve the marriage, he can find himself heavily favored in these proceedings. Beyond that, the rabbis feel compelled to preserve the Jewish family.
This is the backdrop for the powerful Israeli film “Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem,” in which Viviane (Ronit Elkabetz), miserable in her marriage to her devout husband, Elisha (Simon Abkarian), a first-generation Moroccan Israeli, petitions for divorce, a process dramatized in successive court proceedings spanning almost five years. Everything in the film takes place within the stark white-walled courthouse, or in its waiting rooms.
This may not sound like the merriest way to spend time in a movie theater, but “Gett” is compelling from its first frame. It completes a trilogy about the couple that began with “To Take A Wife” and “The Seven Days,” both co-written and codirected by Ronit Elkabetz and her brother Shlomi Elkabetz. It’s not necessary to have seen the previous two films to appreciate the third, but for those who have, the cumulative effect closely approximates that of Ingmar Bergman’s “Scenes From a Marriage.”
The marriage in this case, an arranged one, was fraught from the get-go, and Viviane, in attempting to wrest free of it, is anguished enough to take action even though the process is punitive. The rabbis have disdain for her plight. And since Elisha does not concur with Viviane’s stated conviction that the marriage is a disaster – incompatibility is not legally recognized as grounds for divorce – the dispute ultimately becomes her word against his.
The various witnesses called in to testify about the relationship – including their overbearing neighbor (Ze’ev Revach) and Viviane’s rowdy sister-in-law (Rubi Porat Shoval) – are of no real help to her. Her lawyer, Carmel Ben Tovim (Menashe Noy), who may be in love with her, is as rational as he can be under the circumstances, but his words don’t make much of a dent with the rabbinate. Elisha’s lawyer is his older brother (Sasson Gabay). Together they have the plumped certitude of men who recognize that all the power is on their side.
The codirectors shoot the scenes from the respective points of view of their various characters. They avoid an omniscient tone and they don’t demonize anybody. The three rabbinical judges (Eli Gornstein plays, wonderfully, the central rabbi) fitfully sympathize with Viviane’s pleas; they just answer to, in their view, a higher authority. Elisha, who rarely speaks during the proceedings, is, in his ultra-Orthodox way, in love with Viviane. He provides for her and their family. His violence toward her is strictly emotional; he can’t comprehend why she should want to flee her settled, ordained life with him.
Viviane does her best, until the five-year mark, to restrain herself from exploding in court. She dresses in severe black outfits and keeps her hair up. You know when she shows up in red, and lets down her hair, that she recognizes she has nothing more to lose.
“Gett” has its share of dark humor, especially in its parade of witnesses, who are like characters in a comic folk opera, but essentially it’s a tragedy. This is in large measure because of the furiously intense performance from Elkabetz, one of the finest actresses in movies. (Check out “Late Marriage.”) Viviane represents the powerlessness of women in this society to revoke their imposed fates.
She also represents the strength of these women, even when faced with a life sentence they cannot really overcome. Viviane does achieve a measure of success, though it comes at a cost. Most movies that extend into trilogies should never have ventured past the first installment, but “Gett” is one film deserving of yet another sequel. I want to see what becomes of Viviane. Grade: A- (This film is not rated.)