‘Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem’

‘Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem’

Eric Goldman writes and teaches about Jewish cinema. He is president of Ergo Media, a distributor of Jewish, Yiddish and Israeli film.

Ronit Elkabetz in “Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem.” Courtesy Music Box Films

Bureaucracy often has been a great subject for cinema.

Many of its foibles are universal; over the years, we have been treated to films from all parts of the world that tackled issues of citizen rights vs. the travails of dealing with government. Not surprisingly, Israeli filmmakers have used cinema to try to bring some of these issues out in the open, hoping that public discussion might pave the way for change. Two of the great ’60s classics of Israeli cinema, “Sallah” and “The Blaumilch Canal,” written by satirist Ephraim Kishon, showed how ordinary Israeli citizens met with obstacle after obstacle as they tried to find their way in their society. Now, with “Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem,” co-directors and co-screenwriters Ronit and Shlomi Elkabetz have delved into the all-too-problematic issue of divorce in Israel; they very much hope the film will spark greater public debate and change.

When the State of Israel was created, the administration of such civil matters as marriage, divorce, and conversion were turned over to the chief rabbinate. In this new Jewish state, it seemed to make perfect sense that they be handled by the rabbinate – and that fitted in with the complexity of David Ben Gurion’s political needs at the time. Increasingly, this rabbinic power has caused discord with many Israelis and conflict with Reform, Conservative, and even modern Orthodox groups both within and outside Israel. Who is a Jew? Can a couple choose a rabbi to perform their marriage? Can a conversion undertaken by a rabbi be declared null and void in Israel? These are but a few of the questions that are part of the ongoing and passionate debate.

When someone seeks a divorce in the United States, he or she goes through a civil process. Until a divorce is finalized, no state will allow either partner to remarry. In Jewish law, a marriage can be dissolved only when husband gives a “get,” a bill of divorce, to the wife. (Although the word is spelled “gett” in the film’s title, it is more commonly spelled “get.”) According to Jewish law, a Jewish woman needs a get in order to remarry.

This can cause problems, particularly if the husband does not agree to provide a get, or if he goes missing and is unable to do so. The rabbis have struggled with this matter for centuries, and a variety of solutions have been put forward. But what happens if the husband simply refuses to give the get?

It can get complicated. Some Jewish communities around the world have created committees to pressure husbands. There have been far too many cases where a man expects a financial payoff before he will set his wife free. Some Jews outside Israel simply pay no heed to Jewish law. Many Israelis fly off to another country, particularly Cyprus, and divorce and remarry there.

But what about a Jewish woman in Israel whose husband simply refuses to cooperate? What are her options? She can go to court – a rabbinic court, a beit din.

Ronit Elkabetz, one of Israel’s finest actresses, whose film roles include Pnina in “Sh’chur,” Yudit in “Late Marriage,” and Dina in “The Band’s Visit,” has been appearing in films since 1990. In just about each one of them, the viewer’s eye is drawn immediately to her unique persona and charisma. In her newest film, as Viviane Amsalem, a woman of Moroccan background, who comes to court to dissolve a marriage in which she is totally unfulfilled, Elkabetz is absolutely magnificent. As times quiet and disenchanted by the process, at other times angry and frustrated, Elkabetz shows us a range of emotion that draws us into her character and her sense of total disillusionment.

All Viviane wants is a divorce. She has not been unfaithful. She has tried to be a good wife. But she is not appreciated, not respected, and very unhappy. Her husband, Elisha, played powerfully by French Armenian actor Simon Abkarian, says he loves her, and refuses to accede to her request. The story is a simple one – she wants a divorce and he does not. What this film does is bring us inside the small room that serves as a beit din, to be witness to the process.

In addition to their other activities, during the last decade the multitalented Ronit and her brother Shlomi Elkabetz have been creating a three-part narrative film study of one Mizrahi Israeli family. They have focused on the wants and desires of the wife, a mother of three. In the first film that they co-directed and co-wrote, “To Take a Wife,” released in 2004, the Elkabetz siblings provide a study of three days in the life of a woman who is under strict family pressure to conform as an obedient wife, yet wants more from life. Their second film, “Seven Days,” made four years later, uses the death of a family member and the subsequent shiva as an opportunity to study the broad dysfunctional family. In conversation with Ronit and Shlomi, it was made clear to me that when they began making their trilogy, their goal was “to represent a side of Israeli society that has never been properly represented.”

“Part of our work was to represent the life of Arab Jews from an internal point of view. We tell the story about ourselves!” they said. However, in “Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem,” Shlomi emphasized that in addition to providing a look into his community, this film was made for “every woman in Israel who has had to go through the process of divorce.” In their third film together, a film that was Israel’s submission to this year’s Academy Awards, the duo delve into the legal attempt to end a broken relationship, amid all the pressures of family and obstruction by the husband.

Court movie dramas can be powerful and they can be dull. In this film, just about all the action takes place in a small courtroom, which maybe can fit 15 people. Some of the activity, or lack of it, also is set in the anteroom, where Viviane waits with her attorney, where she returns over the course of many months, to have her case heard, reheard, and resolved.

But make no mistake – the drama is in the acting. When the camera zooms in on Viviane’s face, it tells us much. When the plaintiff comes into the courtroom and is met by the judges, who stress that their job is to find ways to keep families together, just look at her reaction! And the three men sitting above her – are they sufficiently sensitive to this woman’s needs? Is there also racial bias on the part of the Ashkenazi chief judge, played brilliantly by Eli Gorenstein?

If you want superb drama, stellar acting, and a story drawn from real life that sometimes feels like theater of the absurd, I highly recommend this film. The acting of Elkabetz and Abkarian, supported by the talents of actors like Sasson Gabai and Menashe Noy, with a cameo by Ze’ev Revach, make this a movie not to be missed. The film opens today at Lincoln Plaza Cinema in New York.

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