Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem
Directed by Ronit and Shlomi Elkabetz
Opens February 13 at Lincoln Plaza
Sometimes enemies resemble each other more than friends. The Israeli court depicted in Gett (the Hebrew word for “divorce”) evokes Iranian depictions of patriarchy and theocracy, like Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation. It’s a world where women are expected to be silent unless called upon, it’s taken for granted that lawyers and judges are middle-aged (or older) men, and husbands alternate between passive-aggressive behavior and overt nastiness.
To understand the film, a little background is necessary: civil marriage doesn’t exist in Israel. Orthodox rabbis preside over all Israeli marriages and divorces. If Gett is accurate, they’re reluctant to grant divorces to women like Viviane (co-director/screenwriter Ronit Elkabetz) who simply don’t get along with their husbands but haven’t been cheated on or physically abused. Her husband, the slimy Elisha (Simon Abkarian), makes a practice of skipping court dates. Their case drags on for five years, with intertitles letting the audience know how much time has passed between scenes.
In style, Gett aims for stark minimalism. Its blocking is limited. The camera rarely leaves the courtroom, which resembles a junior high school classroom (complete with flaking white paint). The film’s first exterior is also its final scene. Elkabetz proves to be just as capable a director as an actor. The requirements of French co-production may have led to the casting of Abkarian—playing a Moroccan Jew, he speaks most of his dialogue in French—but the actor turns out to be a perfect villain. The three bearded rabbinical judges are perfectly ambiguous figures: never demonized, they nevertheless aren’t on Viviane’s side and aren’t afraid to let her know it. The film implies a great deal about what passes for normal in Israeli society, particularly in the Orthodox community. Just when Gett threatens to become overbearingly grim, it throws in a lighter moment (like testimony from Viviane’s dyed-blonde, heavily made-up sister), but it never strays far from its mission of pointing out the injustice of Israeli divorce laws. Fortunately, the Elkabetz siblings are closer to Jafar Panahi than Stanley Kramer.