Israeli Film on Haredi Divorce Wows Cannes Crowd

'Gett' is powerful, but 'Boreg,' the other Israeli film that debuted at the Cannes Film Festival, falls flat.

Amit Berlowitz

Two Israeli films debuted at the Cannes International Film Festival, which runs from May 14 to 24: one about an ultra-Orthdox Jewish woman and one about a Israeli artist and a Palestinian woman.

The better of the pair, "Gett," which was screened during the festival's Directors' Fortnight, is the third film in a trilogy by siblings Ronit and Shlomi Elkabetz about a Haredi marriage and divorce. The story started with "To Take a Wife" (2005) and continued with the critically-acclaimed "7 Days" (2008).

As in their previous film, Ronit and Shlomi Elkabetz use a daring storytelling technique that works. “Gett” takes place entirely in a rabbinical courtroom where Viviane, portrayed in mostly restrained fashion by Ronit Elkabetz, has been trying for five years to win a religious divorce from her stubborn husband, Elisha (Simon Abkarian), with the help of her attorney (Menashe Noy). The film is a harsh indictment of the control the rabbinical courts exert over our lives, particularly those of women.

Too many Israeli films portray the religious and Haredi segments of Israeli society as romantic and exotic. So it is refreshing that there is nothing romantic or exotic about Viviane’s situation or the torment and humiliation she suffers over five long years. Being critical does not prevent the film from sometimes being comedic, emphasizing the grotesqueness of the divorce process. Even Viviane sometimes breaks out laughing in court, where witnesses for both sides are brought to determine whether she deserves to leave her husband.

Since what happens in court, including in the rabbinical kind, is always a kind of theater, the setting works well. And in their style of direction, the Elkabetz siblings emphasize the theatrical, making the courtroom an arena of masculine aggression and female humiliation.

It was interesting to watch the film with a mostly non-Israeli audience — which might be less familiar with the power rabbinical courts and religious law have over our lives — though the film's directors, several of its actor and other players in Israeli cinema were in attendance. The audience laughed in the right places and applauded loudly for several minutes after the credits rolled, apparently convinced by the depiction of an aspect of Israeli society that is just as reactionary and oppressive to women as it is in the most backward countries.

"Boreg" (Self-Made) — which was written and directed by Shira Geffen and screened during the festival's Critics' Week — is too pretentious. Like “Jellyfish” — which Geffen directed together with Israeli writer Etgar Keret and which won the Camera d’Or in 2007 — the film moves between reality and fantasy. But it collapses under the burden of its tricks, and pretentiousness keeps it from saying something significant about what is happening in our region.

The film is saved to some extent by Sarah Adler’s excellent performance as Michal, an admired Israeli artist going through an existential crisis. The action jumps between her life and that of Nadine, a Palestinian woman played by Samira Saraya, who works in a factory for a company resembling Ikea. In the second part of the film, which seems to have been forced on the first, the two women trade places. (This is not a spoiler. The film includes this information in all its press.)

There are several laughs and some moments of verbal and visual brilliance, but they are overshadowed by gimmicks, which make light of the weighty subjects the film pretends to deal with. Fantastical films have been successfully made about what is going on in our region, including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but they mixed amusement with sincerity and responsibility — traits that are lacking in Geffen's self-indulgent, haphazard and hollow creation.

Among the films competing for the Palme d’Or this year, the most outstanding to be screened so far is, as expected, “Winter Sleep” by Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan. In an intense three-and-a-half hours, the film tells the story of a former actor, an unabashed Shakespeare-lover, who runs a small hotel in Antalya, a resort city on Turkey's Mediterranean coast. He lives at the hotel with his much younger wife, who is unhappy in her marriage to him, and his divorced, embittered sister. The film has been acquired for distribution in Israel.

Ceylan is a master craftsman of extraordinary artistic courage. Like “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia,” his previous film and best to date, “Winter Sleep,” takes its time. The film does not shrink from spending many minutes on conversations between the protagonist and the two women in his life, which take place in one place and sound so credible that they almost seem improvised.

Beyond its plot, the film, which is beautifully filmed in a snowy Antalya winter, creates a social, cultural, political and economic image of the region and, more broadly, of the contemporary Turkish experience. It is a rich, impressive and demanding work of art.