“Gett: The Trial of Viviane Ansalem”
Navigating Israel’s Divorce Courts
Israel is unique in that there is neither civil marriage nor civil divorce. Only rabbis can legitimate a marriage or its dissolution. However, dissolution is only possible with full consent from the husband, who actually has more power than the judges. Viviane Amsalem has been applying for divorce for three years. Her husband Elisha will not agree. He possesses a cold intransigence and Viviane is determined to fight for her freedom. The ambiguous role of the judges shapes a procedure in which tragedy is on equal footing absurdity, and everything is brought out for judgment, apart from the initial request
The film is the work on brother/sister team Ronit Elkabetz and Shlomi Elkabetz and it deals with misogynistic religious laws that feel shockingly archaic. Viviane (Ronit Elkabetz and Elisha (Simon Abkarian) have been married for thirty years and none of those years have been good ones according to Viviane. They married when she was just fifteen and she is bound by the strictures of the Orthodox Jewish law that rules Jewish marriages in Israel, only a husband can end a marriage, and Elisha stubbornly refuses to grant her a get. The entire film takes place in or just outside the drab, claustrophobic rabbinical court where Viviane and her lawyer, Carmel Ben Tovim (Menashe Noy), return every few weeks for more than five years to argue her case. (Elisha doesn’t even bother to show up much of the time). The courtroom is cramped and reeks of bureaucratic stagnation so much so that it even becomes oppressive for the audience. We thereby quickly identify with Viviane and her desire to be a free woman. making it easy to identify with Viviane’s growing hunger for freedom. (I have a friend who has been waiting for her husband to give her gett now for over twenty years so for me the three and five year periods seem mild in comparison). We quickly also understand that it is not divorce that is on trial here but Viviane. She is almost constantly poked and prodded by Elisha’s lawyer and the three often openly contemptuous rabbis for signs of being a” wayward woman” which the lawyer labels her as. The judges appear to take offense at any woman who speaks her mind or fails to contain her femininity. In fact, one of the judges reprimands Viviane for undoing the bun she usually wears in court. This same judge harangues a character witness who speaks freely about how hard women have it in Israel. She is chastised her for her lack of modesty and everything she says is ignored.
The camera is aimed straightforwardly at the judges and at Viviane and bounces back and forth between them, the lawyers and Elisha (who shows no expression). There are two scenes—one at the beginning and the other at the end that are focused on Viviane’s point of view.
The first of these show Viviane as invisible to the men who are deciding her fate and in it we see only Elisha, the lawyers, and the judges as they talk heatedly about her case for minutes before finally pulling back to include Viviane, who has been sitting silently facing the judges. She is silent yet her presence is quite vivid—her white, white skin are dark hair and eyebrows, her penetrating eyes and her regality of stature lets us know that she is totally there. In the final scene we just see her feet and ankles as she leaves the court and it is not clear as to where she is going. She could be headed home or to pay the heavy price Elisha has exacted from her. He destination does not matter—what does matter is that she is still trapped and denied her freedom—the same freedom that she begged the court to grant.
This film is look at the marriage system in a foreign country, but it also looks at and understands human emotion and character. In Israel, if there are no grounds for a separation, such as domestic abuse, a dissolution cannot be granted. Viviane is willing to fight for her divorce for years in order to achieve her freedom. Elisha refuses to grant his wife a divorce, requiring an extensive trial in order to come to a ruling. Viviane just wants to receive the freedom that she deserves. She doesn’t desire anything from her husband, but a separation. The filmmakers made the decision to allow the entire film to take place within the court and since we never leave this building, it allows a certain amount of tension to build to an explosive point from which we can never return. The verbal answer of Elisha isn’t the only concern that Viviane has, but actually getting him to show up proves to be a problem of its own. In opposition to an American court system, the authoritative figures claim that there isn’t anything that they can do. Each session within the first part of the film is relatively short, as they simply advise her to move back in with her husband and keep trying to work it out. She continues to return, and they dismiss her time and time again. Viviane rarely says a word— she allows her lawyer to speak on her behalf. Since we never leave the court, we’re never exposed to anybody’s life outside of the presence of the rabbis. This is more than just
a court case for a divorce. It’s a struggle for a woman’s freedom, a woman who feels as if she’s invisible in her society. Once we reach the second part of the film, the lawyer takes on a more critical role, as he has clearly become emotionally invested in this case over the years that have passed by. It begins to speak on the oppressive nature of the courts. Viviane she sits in silence that is only broken by her action of letting her hair down. This acts as a small, yet symbolically powerful statement that truly reflects upon the repressed feelings within this suffering woman. It isn’t until the third part that her silence is finally broken, as she fights to put her situation into words that perhaps may move the rabbis. She does not speak just to speak, she does so because she has something important to say. Every word is carefully placed in order to land the most emotionally-charged impact possible. We become so invested in Viviane’s journey to freedom, that we can’t help but feel an extreme amount of anxiety throughout the film. We want nothing more than for her to receive the divorce that she deserves, but the court system’s rules are much more complicated than one would imagine.
Several witnesses are brought in to speak about Viviane and Elisha’s marriage. A series of questions are asked by both of their lawyers in order to prove their specific angle to the rabbis. They range from family members to neighbors. However, even those who one would imagine to be witnesses on Viviane’s side, provide testimony that largely supports the case of Elisha, as nearly everybody praises him. Some go as far as to call him a saint, and the perfect husband. Therefore, this places the blame of the unsuccessful marriage on the wife, which doesn’t present grounds for a divorce. It’s up to Carmel, the lawyer, to find a way to show reasons why this marriage shouldn’t be. Since we never leave the court building. We don’t entirely know which witnesses are telling the truth because we never eave the court to see what it is like out there. So much depends on the ways that statements are worded that not every witness has the ability to get his/her words across. The film does shift with the witnesses and we realize that we are totally involved with what is happening on the screen.
It all has to do with the wording, and not every witness appears to be very good with getting their thoughts across, often sounding in Elisha’s favor. However, the picture’s tone slightly changes from one individual to another, but the shifts feel natural. Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem has a fluid sense of storytelling that doesn’t only convince, but it entirely engages us.
Ronit Elkabetz not only wrote and directed the film, she stars in it as Viviane and her performance is brilliant. He face shows the emotions clearly and she does not have to say a word to make people see what she is thinking. She does retaliate against the court’s rulings and in doing so she not only impacts the film but the viewer. In fact, there are only fine performances by everyone in the film.
Ronit Elkabetz has done more than write and direct this film, but she also stars in the lead role of Viviane Amsalem. This is a brilliant performance that truly brings the emotion out of its viewers. Without speaking a word of dialogue, she has the ability to bring an entire world of emotions to the forefront. When she finally retaliates against the oppressive rulings and statements, the film receives an impact that wouldn’t have been present without Elkabetz’s inspirational portrayal. She delivers a heart-wrenchingly powerful performance that works its way into our soul, and makes what could have been an insincere portrayal, a tremendous one. There isn’t a single weak link in the cast, as every individual is utterly convincing in their portrayal.
Even though the film is entirely shot within a single building, that doesn’t stop it from having a fascinating visual style. The entire film is shot from a variety of perspectives, as we continue to jump from one set of eyes to the next. This allows for us to view the court case from every angle imaginable. Since the film takes place within such a small space, seeing close-ups increases tension. It’s clear that a lot of thought has gone into the camera angles, introducing the feature to an entirely new dimension of emotion. The plain white walls in the court room are deceiving to the colorful range of its inventive visual qualities. The use of long shots are brought into the picture’s most impactful moments in order for us to focus on the potency given within Viviane’s speeches. This is a certainly an intriguing visual experience well-worth watching.
I read where one person said that the film was the most frustrating he had seen this year but hew continued on saying that the meant that as a positive critique. “Gett” calls attention to a very real struggle that many women are facing in a part of the world that many of us are perhaps unfamiliar with its legal/religious system. It tells an important story about a character that doesn’t want our pity—she just wants us to feel what she feels. She draws us in and keeps us there.