Ronit Elkabetz, Who Shattered Stereotypes About Mizrahi Women

The greatness of the late Israeli actor stems from the fact that her own unique persona informed the credibility of all the characters she played.

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Elkabetz, in a promotional shot for her 2011 film “Invisible.”
Elkabetz, in a promotional shot for her 2011 film “Invisible.”Credit: Ilya Melnikov

To describe the contribution of Ronit Elkabetz – who died at 51 on April 19 – to Israeli cinema, we need to invoke the term “persona.” A persona comes into being when, at a certain moment in an actor’s work, the different characters he has played coalesce in the viewer’s mind into one imaginary entity, which is also identified with the actor’s actions, behavior and appearances in the public arena.

At a certain point in the audience’s consciousness, Elkabetz’s cinematic-stage presence in the characters she played – such as the ostracized sister in Shmuel Hasfari’s “Sh’Chur” (1994); the divorcée whom the younger, still unmarried Zaza loves in Dover Koshashvili’s “Late Marriage” (2001); the prostitute in Keren Yedaya’s “Or” (2004); the resident of the remote development town in Eran Kolirin’s “The Band’s Visit” (2007); Viviane in the trilogy she codirected with her brother, Shlomi Elkabetz (“To Take a Wife,” 2004; “Shiva,” 2008; and “Gett,” 2014), and a raped woman in Michal Aviad’s “Invisible” (2011) – became intertwined with her extra-cinematic figure and created a new image, a persona.

On the surface, it seems as though most of her films (both those she either created herself as screenwriter and director, and those in which she simply acted) saw her playing characters who are on the margins of Israeli society, and dependent on the benevolence of patriarchal figures and subject to ethnic and religious strictures. But at the same time, these characters are fed by Elkabetz’s persona. As such, even when they embody excruciating defeat (as in “Or,” when Ruthie’s daughter is unable to extricate her mother from the cycle of prostitution), or tragic victory, which they achieve at the price of their sexuality (as at the end of “Gett”), they assume, through Elkabetz’s persona, a subversive power that turns the family-social-institutional order inside out.

By means of her ability as an actor to make her persona the prime driving force of the characters she played, Elkabetz succeeded in becoming the bearer of tidings both for women and femininity in Israeli cinema, and especially for Mizrahi women (referring to Jews of Middle Eastern or North African origin).

It is not only a case of resistance to the consignment of the Mizrahi woman to being poor, uneducated, identified with domesticity and family, shackled by tradition, and so forth. The point is that in the course of representation that aspires to portray this depressing reality and rail against it, Elkabetz’s persona declares the presence of a Mizrahi woman who is educated, modern, secular and the master of her body, sexuality and decisions. As such, women’s rights to autonomy, to their body, to divorce, to property and more, spring forth from the intensity and power of Elkabetz’s persona.

It is Elkabetz’s ability as an actress that drives this complex process, in which – in addition to the representation accorded the disadvantaged and helpless woman – the viewer becomes aware of the race- and gender-driven power systems that characterize Israeli society in general. Yet at the same time, the viewer feels the tremendous potential power that resides within the woman who’s playing the part of the subordinate character.

The persona generated by Elkabetz thus makes it possible for us to grasp the way in which women participate in the systems of power and oppression, as they participate in the systems of resistance and criticism. Through her persona, Elkabetz is occupied with an attempt to develop a class, ethnic and gender consciousness that derives from power, not from its absence. The ability to create such a complex position for her subject – of victimization from which prodigious feminine power erupts – is not connected only to the story that each of the films relates.

And Elkabetz’s greatness as an actor doesn’t lie only in her ability to play convincingly, and in minute detail, a broad range of characters (in keeping with the acting tradition fostered by actors such as Meryl Streep, for example). Her greatness stems from the fact that her persona informs the credibility of the characters, so that the traits they bring to the screen generate a strong quasi-documentary sense. In other words, Elkabetz’s rebellious consciousness peers and bursts out from each of the subordinated characters she plays, without this contrast undermining the character’s authenticity or the integrity of her acting.

In this way, the revolutionary struggle realized in her persona was able to remove itself from the binary conception of ownership of power (men) versus powerlessness (women). That struggle not only asks the male viewer questions about his voyeuristic, race-driven and fundamentalist attitude toward Mizrahi women; it also demands of him, through her continued presence, her persona, to relinquish his psychic violence.

Few actresses in world cinema have also gone on to become directors (others are Barbra Streisand, Jodie Foster and Angelina Jolie), and only occasionally did their work as directors support the ideological stance that drove their work as actors, without compromise. In this sense, both Elkabetz’s awareness of the need to constantly critique the power systems, and her voice and consciousness are marvelously singular in world cinema, and not only in Israeli filmmaking.

The writer is an associate professor of cinema studies in the department of communication and journalism, and head of the Smart Family Institute of Communications, at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.