Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem Written and directed by Ronit Elkabetz, Shlomi Elkabetz; with Ronit Elkabetz, Menashe Noy, Simon Abkarian, Sasson Gabai, Ze’ev Revach, Dalia Berger, Evelin Hagoel, Rubi Porat Shoval, Shmil Ben Ari, Albert Iluz
Theatricality is a major component in the films of Ronit Elkabetz and Shlomi Elkabetz. In the first movie they made together, “To Take a Wife,” the theatrical element overwhelmed the reality of the story; but in their two subsequent films, “Shiva” and now “Gett,” the Elkabetz siblings found the right dramatic context and shape for this theatricality, and the result is satisfying, even impressive.
This quality in the work of Ronit and Shlomi Elkabetz (also evident in “Testimony,” the very different – yet no less impressive – film that Shlomi Elkabetz made on his own) comes hand in hand with their fondness for the family melodrama, to which they add their own unique touch. The full name of their new film is “Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem.” I like the subtitle, which reminds me of the melodramas of the silent-picture and classic Hollywood eras; these were movies about women whose distress stems from the social system around them. The subtitle of “Gett,” with its whiff of sensationalist journalism, underscores the ironic edge the two filmmakers have given to their own melodrama.
As they did in “Shiva,” Ronit and Shlomi Elkabetz have opted here for a bold, and ultimately successful, visual strategy, which they pursue even further in “Gett” than they did in the earlier movie. Except for the opening and ending and a few other moments, “Shiva” was set almost entirely inside a single location – the house where the family gathers for its seven days of mourning. “Gett,” with the exception of the final, largely symbolic shot, also unfolds inside a single space: the rabbinical court chambers where Viviane Amsalem, played by Ronit Elkabetz, tries to obtain a divorce from her husband, Elisha (Simon Abkarian), as well as the adjacent waiting room.
The portrayal of the home’s interior in “Shiva” was highly aestheticized through the use of black and white, with a few dashes of color. The result, which moved from large crowd scenes to more intimate moments, offered a visual pleasure that is almost entirely absent from “Gett,” and with good reason. The new film depicts a far uglier reality, and while Jeanne Lapoirie’s cinematography sometimes strives for a stylized expressivity, it does not conceal the dull, unattractive nature of the space in which the drama unfolds.
“Gett” follows the five years in which Viviane struggles to be freed of her husband. The passage of time between the plot’s different segments is announced by captions, which highlight the dry, factual nature the filmmakers want to give their story. Viviane faces the three judges of the rabbinical court, and she is represented throughout her case by attorney Carmel Ben Tovim (Menashe Noy, above). Since Viviane’s liberty is in the hands of her recalcitrant husband, the judges require her to present witnesses – family members, neighbors and acquaintances – as evidence that the court has grounds to force Elisha to grant the divorce. Much of the movie focuses on these testimonies, which are presented to the judges – and in part also to the audience, which in this way becomes implicated in Viviane’s prolonged humiliation at the hands of the male religious establishment.
Courtroom drama – and “Gett” falls into that category – is always a kind of theater, set in an arena that is both private and public and which serves as an expression of the society and culture around it. “Gett” gains its power, among other things, from the fact that while unfolding a dismal drama, it retains a sense of comedy. Even the tormented Viviane occasionally bursts into laughter at the sight of what is happening inside the courtroom where her fate is to be decided. This comic element, above all else, accentuates the grotesque dimension of her ordeal. It is there in the series of testimonies presented by male and female prototypes that seem taken from the tradition of Israeli comic cinema – including the popular ethnic comedies known as “burekas films,” a genre I evoke here not to diminish the movie, but rather to point to its ironic edge. The witnesses are played by Evelin Hagoel, Albert Iluz, Ze’ev Revach, Shmil Ben Ari and Rubi Porat Shoval, who all perform as needed. Special praise is due to Dalia Berger, who manages more than the others to give her testimony a poignant humanity.
Alongside these witnesses, whose message and symbolic value is obvious, and the rabbinical court judges overseeing the proceedings, the movie wisely places the two central male figures of the story, whose characters are more elusive and whose motivations are more ambivalent: the husband and the stubborn, loyal attorney (Noy, as the latter, gives his best screen performance to date). “Gett” maintains this vagueness and ambivalence to the end, which gives depth to the result. This aspect of the film also makes clear that beyond being an attack on the religious establishment that dominates Israeli life and often victimizes women, this is a movie about the different ways in which men and women think and feel, and in that sense it transcends the particular case and reality with which it deals.
And then there is Viviane, who remains silent for much of the film: she is the heroine as well as the witness to what happens in the movie (on one of its most interesting levels, “Gett” is about different kinds of testimony, connecting it to the earlier film that Shlomi Elkabetz directed alone). But Ronit Elkabetz’s presence is so dominant that the entire movie flows to her, even when she is supposedly on the margins of a given scene, and even before the screenplay allows her the kind of outburst that is typical of her acting.
Elkabetz is a theatrical actress, whether she erupts or remains silent. This quality of hers has been present in all but a few of her films (Eran Kolirin’s “The Band’s Visit” and Michal Aviad’s “Invisible” being among the handful of exceptions). It seems very likely to me that she is the source of the theatricality that defines her joint projects with her brother. At times I found myself wondering whether the movie might have been more effective in conveying its message if its lead actress had not been one of such unique, even egocentric presence; that said, you simply cannot take your eyes off her face.
“Gett” is sharply critical of the religious establishment, but it will not reveal much that is new to those viewers who know what happens in Israel’s rabbinical courts and are already outraged at their control over our lives. For all its protest, the movie does not try to innovate; its goal, rather, is to document the aggressive, debasing process Viviane is forced to go through. Its attack is therefore not unrestrained, and its account of the heroine’s grotesque ordeal also has an enriching melancholy to it. Beyond the wisdom of its narrative and stylistic choices, what gives “Gett” its validity and power is the way it functions as an antithesis to the many – too many, in my opinion – recent Israeli films and television dramas that have directed a curious secular gaze at the ultra-Orthodox world, which they portrayed in a romantic, exotic way.
If “Gett” indeed forms the last part of a trilogy, then despite my response to its underwhelming first part, the overall result is a significant event in contemporary Israeli filmmaking. These successive movies are not mere sequels to each other; they are a work that each time uses both old and new cinematic means to embrace Israeli reality, on both the private and the collective level. Together, “To Take A Wife,” “Shiva” and now “Gett” have demonstrated the unique presence of Ronit and Shlomi Elkabetz in Israeli cinema today; their talent has been proven beyond dispute.