During a rehearsal of an opera, so goes the story, an argument ensued between the Maestro Arturo Toscanini, and a soprano who shall remain nameless (any diva – slim, fat or in between – without whose singing the opera cannot end, will do), as to the way the aria should be sung. The diva had, or so she thought, a clinching argument: “But I am the star of this production,” she announced modestly. “Ah,” answered the Maestro with a sigh, “the only stars I’m aware of are in heaven, Madame”
Nonetheless, the Israeli-French (mainly cinema) actress Ronit Elkabetz, who died of cancer on Tuesday at 51, was undoubtedly a star. It’s not only that she starred in quite a few films, Israeli and French, but that she, more than any actor I can think of, present or recent past, possessed what can be called star quality. It was bright, shining, and yet emanated a sort of cold light, arriving from a distance of many light years, unreachable, almost untouchable.
The news of her death and the illness that caused it was utterly unexpected, and caught her many admirers, and even co-workers, by surprise. And that in itself, in this age of ours when the most private is made public ASAP – is a sort of measure of her stardom. Ronit Elkabetz moved according to her own gravity in its very particular, original, and in retrospect, inevitable and astounding orbit. At a time when every calamity, big or small, any joy experienced by a celebrity, and even mundane moments are instagrammed or “paparazzied” immediately, she shone only on the big screen or at festivals and festive screenings. She was always impeccably dressed and always made a fashion statement, spreading, as it were, a handful of stardust, but never allowing her public even a whiff of the familiarity that breeds contempt.
And yet, according to her friends and co-workers – who responded to her untimely death in the media (TV, radio, news printed and digital) and social networks, with a mixed overflow of emotions and appreciation, surprise and awe – she was a person deeply involved not only in her creative endeavors, but also in the fabric of social life in both her countries, Israel and France. Most of her artistic output as an actress, screenwriter or instigator of movie projects, concerned the plight of underprivileged, strong-willed and eventually invincible women (of Mizrahi background, like herself) fighting seemingly lost cases and causes and remaining the last woman standing, unvanquished even when hurt and beaten.
Villainess of the piece
It happened that her last two appearances on the screen were on TV. The first was in the dystopian French mini-series “Trepalium” (six episodes, broadcast in France by Arte and in Israel on YES Oh, starting at the end of February). Elkabetz played Nadia Passeron, the Prime Minister of Aquaville (aka France about 30 years in the future). The series presents a chilling view of the near future as a grim, gray world in which one’s survival depends on one’s ability to have and hold a job. Aquaville is surrounded by a high wall (yes, that does ring a bell) and in it live and (barely) thrive the lucky 20 percent who have jobs. Most, if not all, the jobs are meaningless, menial slots along a digital and digitized production line, with all the workers constantly scrutinized, overseen, prodded or/and punished by some Big Brother.
The other 80 percent of the population are the homeless (and jobless) who live within a place called The Zone, devoid of hope, except for the dream of getting some money (since they cannot find work, they can only beg, steal or borrow) and escaping to the south. There, so they say, are many nice jobs, if one can get them (or even get there). An unuttered phrase from the fairly recent past hovers over this bleakly futuristic series, namely “Arbeit Macht Frei,” work sets you free.
In the first episode Elkabetz, as Nadia, manages to reach an agreement with the insurgents within the Zone (whose leader is her own brother) to free her husband, the minister who held the Work portfolio in her government, after he spent almost a year in insurgent captivity. His freedom is bought by creating 10,000 superfluous jobs for Zone inhabitants, who thus manage to place both sides of the society, haves and have-nots, in a precarious balance. Elkabetz comes over as a strong, no-nonsense, even ruthless woman who is willing and able to trade her nearest and dearest for political gain. If anything, she is the villainess of the piece. She plays the part to the hilt, but one cannot forget even for a moment that she is a very important cog in a mechanism – a TV series – that wants, and manages, to say something about the present predicament of our society. If we are to survive, we must provide jobs for our poor and needy. Twisted with macabre irony, the Nazi slogan becomes a factual statement.
Ekabetz’s starring part in the mini-series (for which no second season had been planned) brought her to a talk show on Israel’s Channel 2. She was invited to the studio for a live broadcast, ostensibly to talk about the mini-series to be screened and her part in it. However, a week or so before that, the glow of another Israeli star, Moshe Ivgi, was tarnished by accusations of sexual harassment by several women who had worked with him on stage and in films. On the talk show, anchor Oded Ben-Ami and reporter Jonathan Riger opened the live interview with Elkabetz by trying to elicit her response to the accusations hurled at Ivgi. She resisted, trying to steer the conversation to the series she was supposed to promote. But the reporters insisted on grilling her about Ivgi, and she just stood up and left the studio in the middle of the live broadcast, a rare breach of protocol by an interviewee in a TV studio.
That, as it happened, was Elkabetz’s final appearance on any screen. It was unplanned, and not a part she had created (there were many brillant ones). But nothing in her life, on screen or off, became her like leaving that TV studio. She was, to the last moment of her life an actress, a woman and a human being who answered only to herself, and therefore was true to herself, to paraphrase Polonius’s advice to Laertes in “Hamlet.”
Stars never die. They even don’t fade away. They keep on shining from above and on screen.