For Jewish Israelis, divorce can be an arcane and despairing process. Whether Orthodox or Reform, observant or secular, a divorce must be consented to by both man and wife. Should one party refuse to grant the divorce, hearings are held before a rabbinical court, and a complex, symbolic ceremony must take place to finalise the separation. But the court cannot force a spouse to consent, which has left numerous Jewish women trapped in marriages, reportedly to men who have done anything from moved to another country, lied about their sexuality, or even molested his own children.
The system is heavily, patriarchically weighted against women, a towering bias that comes to bear on Viviane Amsalem (Ronit Elkabetz). Her husband, Elisha (Simon Abkarian), simply refuses to acquiesce; despite living apart for years, he clings to the old-world hope that their marriage can be repaired.
The entire film takes place within a courthouse, and largely within the courtroom. It’s claustrophobic and austere, with three grizzled rabbis looming down from their bench imperiously. Viviane’s advocate, Carmel Ben-Tovin (Menashe Noy), argues furiously for her, his chivalry in contrast to the frequent petulant absences of her husband. Elisha’s advocate is his brother Shimon (Sasson Gabai), who shares Carmel’s passion but in a very different manner.
Gett, The Trial of Viviane Amsalem is immediately weighted with a burden of history. The film is the last in a trilogy written and directed by brother-sister filmmakers Ronit and Shlomo, but it doesn’t suffer for the absence of context provided by the two movies preceding it. Gett stands alone as a remarkable chamber drama, as ferocious as it is bleakly funny.
It’s often expected that a film confined to a single location will suffer visually, but the Elkabetz siblings are far too intelligent filmmakers for that. Each frame is meticulous and full of coiled tension, the camera focusing on characters looking at each other, lingering on Viviane’s gaze most rewardingly.
Cinematographer Jeanne Lapoirie has crafted the film’s imagery around Ronit Elkabetz’s magnetic presence, finding nuance in each shift of the camera’s position. Joëlle Alexis’ editing expertly builds momentum, shifting the energy of courtroom back-and-forth into the cuts to or away from faces. The camera drinks in the characters’ body language, with so much expressed just in their eyes.
115 minutes is a long time to spend in such marital hell, and Gett shows some flab around its middle act. But the film’s structure, jumping forward months at a time from hearing to hearing, is never too restless, and the agonising length serves the film’s ultimate goal of accurately portraying the frustration and injustice caused by this archaic, unfair system.
Gett is also careful not to indulge a saint and sinner dichotomy in its characters. Each is a startlingly well-realising creation bursting with flaws and emotion, with a host of Israeli character actors filling the roles of witnesses to the Amsalems’ marriage. These witnesses also allow for a vein of humour to be tapped, a vein so deep it might pass many by. Even just the occasional appearance of a rabbi’s hat becomes a welcome, funny respite.
A film this intimate lives and dies by its actors, and Abkarian, Noy and Shimon are all terrific as the men circling Viviane’s life, holding it in their hands. But while she starts the film stoic and somewhat reserved, Ronit Elkabetz’s gradual escalation of Viviane’s emotional state is unbelievably good, from the tears of hatred that well in her eyes to the cathartic outbursts in which her voice is finally heard (and swiftly ignored again). It’s an enthralling, best-of-its-year kind of performance which will likely never receive its due.
Gett, The Trial of Viviane Amsalem has garnered comparisons to Asghar Farhadi’s masterpiece A Separation, and while the painstakingly crafted divorce drama shoe fits, the containment of the Elkabetzes’ narrative sets them widely apart. Gett is made with an extreme specificity – we know children are involved but never meet them, and we know many arguments have been had but never see them.
The result of Israel’s 2015 Oscar submission is both a scathing excoriation of Jewish marriage law, and a broader indictment of the immense structures of power that hold women less decisive and impetuous than Viviane under the thumbs of men. Gett, The Trial of Viviane Amsalem is a gruelling and captivating experience, but as a study of human behaviour, it couldn’t be more rewarding.
[rating=4] and a half
Laurence Barber - follow Laurence on Twitter at @bortlb.