Reviewed by GREG KING
Directors: Ronit and Shlomi Elkabetz
Stars: Ronit Elkabetz, Simon Abkarian, Sasson Gabai, Menashe Noy, Eli Gornstein.
There have been some great and compelling courtroom dramas over the years which has provided some fireworks, such as Otto Preminger’s Anatomy Of A Murder, A Few Good Men, The Caine Mutiny, and now we can add to this list the Israeli courtroom drama Gett: The Trial Of Viviane Amsalem. Winner of the Best Picture Award at the Ophir Awards (the Israeli equivalent of the Oscars), Gett: The Trial Of Viviane Amsalem was one of the standout films at the recent Jewish Film Festival. It now gets a limited cinema release.
In Israel there are no courts to hear divorce proceedings. Rather the case is tried before a rabbinical panel, but ultimately it is up to the husband to give his consent before the divorce is final. Without the husband’s consent, even this panel cannot grant a divorce. And that is the awkward situation we witness in this intense courtroom drama.
After years of feeling trapped in an increasingly unhappy marriage to the boring and devout Elisha (Simon Abkarian, from Persepolis, Rendition, etc), Viviane Amsalem (Ronit Elkabetz, from The Band’s Visit, etc) wants a divorce. She has lived apart from her husband for the past four years, and wants to make a new life for herself. At first, Elisha delays proceedings by refusing to turn up to the hearings. After being ordered to attend or face jail, Elisha fronts up, but despite the panel’s decision to grant the divorce he refuses to give his consent, thus ensuring that Viviane’s agony and frustration continues.
Witnesses are brought in to provide inadequate testimony about the nature of the couple’s relationship. The emphasis is on Viviane to demonstrate her unhappiness while Elisha insists that he is trying to reconcile their differences. Elisha is proud, determined and confident that he holds the power in this situation. We never really learn why he is so stubborn. He is defended by his own brother Rabbi Shimon (Sasson Gabai), a respected religious man within the close knit community.
For the most part Viviane is mute and stoic, although she is given to the occasional emotional outburst as her desperation grows due to Elisha’s deliberate actions to delay the hearing. Viviane is constantly judged, and even has to endure probing questions concerning her morality since her separation and the nature of her relationship with her lawyer (Menashe Noy).
As the years pass by, the audience gets a very real sense of the increasing frustration that Viviane feels at the intransigence and strictly patriarchal and religious nature of the tribunal, and that sense of imprisonment, of being unable to escape, becomes more intense and palpable as the film wears on. It’s only at the end do the filmmakers enable us to breathe, although there are a few lighter comic moments throughout the film.
This searing, bleak and intense drama is a collaboration between actress Elkabetz and her brother Shlomi, and is the third film in their unofficial trilogy about Israeli marriage that began in 2004 with To Take A Wife and has followed a couple through various stages of their relationship. However it is not necessary to have seen the previous films as Gett works well as a powerful and emotionally charged stand alone drama. The movie explores the patriarchal nature of Israeli society, which is largely structured around archaic traditions and gender roles.
This is very much a performance driven chamber piece, and the small cast are all uniformly good. Elkabetz delivers a striking and empathetic performance as Viviane, while Abkarian is also very good as the unlikeable Elisha. Noy is sympathetic as Viviane’s dedicated and understanding lawyer whose impassioned pleas fall on deaf ears.
Gett: The Trial Of Viviane Amsalem is very theatrical in its staging as much of the drama is played out inside the confines of the small and sterile hearing room, giving the film an uncomfortably claustrophobic feel. Cinematographer Jeanne Lapoirie uses close ups at times to heighten the tension and the mood, often focusing on Elkabetz’s expressive face.