There hasn’t been a film in recent memory that has evoked such intense levels of frustration within me as Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem. On purpose that is. As much as this film is a portrayal of unrelenting religious bureaucracy at its finest, it is also a masterwork of using cinematic storytelling to explore the rousing of emotions in an audience in conjunction with divisive politics.
The foundation is simple: an Israeli woman, Viviane (Ronit Elkabetz), wants a divorce from her husband, Elisha (Simon Abkarian). He refuses to grant her one. Without his consent, the divorce cannot proceed, and a seemingly useless Rabbinical court takes little action to expedite a ruling. As a woman and a feminist there is little in this story that doesn’t infuriate me. I watch as Viviane is forced to return to court month after month, hoping her husband will show up, and having her integrity questioned countless times in a broken record of frivolous questioning. But by not relying solely on overt gender politics in the film, co-directors Ronit Elkabetz and Shlomi Elkabetz use instead the tools of filmmaking to facilitate genuine feelings of frustration, hopelessness, and anger.
The entire film takes place within the walls of a court house, a confining white cinderblock room that the characters nor the audience never leaves. Only title cards that read, “two months later,” or “six months later,” mention the passage of time, and with each chapter break we feel more and more trapped in a prison we’ll never escape. With each new hearing, we become more in tune with Viviane’s seething glances at Elisha, who only shows up when the court commands it and in turn throws his own cool glares at Viviane. During these hearings we get small glimpses into the private lives of these two people, who essentially have all the makings of a “good” marriage besides the fact that they just don’t like each other. Yet hatred alone does not a divorce make. The hearings become almost vignette like in their portrayal of the couple, a tightly edited series that paints a rather even portrayal of both parties, despite the fact we may be manipulated into seeing more of a victim in Viviane and a villain in Elisha.
The audience vexation grows with each passing hearing, and we can’t help but feel that the whole process is for naught, but instead of the film being a tedious exercise in legal and religious semantics, the filmmakers have the backing of an incredibly engaging script and talented actors to bring out the humanity in each of the characters. Viviane is not a perfect woman, and therefore not a perfect wife. Elkabetz embodies the persona of a woman fighting an uphill battle. She is at once a victim of an oppressive system, and her own liberator. Her final courtroom scene where she essentially begs for a divorce is unbearably heartbreaking yet an intensely dignified character moment that still resonates with me. Elisha is a distant man, which makes him a less than ideal husband but a decent person by all other accounts (of which there are many by friends and family who are called to testify during the trial). Abkarian is very adept at playing him both as a cold, colossal ass and a man full of regret.
Really, if we are meant to despise anything it’s the stubbornness of an archaic religious institution that refuses to co-exist with the modern society it functions within today, and not the individuals themselves. By the end of the film’s nearly two hour runtime, I was so exhausted by the proceedings I wanted to wring the necks of everyone in that court room to make them see reason. It takes a very well-crafted film to make largely unfamiliar legal processes, much of them repetitive, into such an emotionally interactive experience that doesn’t rely on cheap political jargon to garner reactions.
Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem opens today at the Ritz Five and The Bryn Mawr Film Institute.
Author: Jill Malcolm
Jill is happiest attending midnight screenings with other crazy film fans at her local theater. Her other passions include reading, traveling to faraway places, cat videos, pugs, and jalapeño peppers. She is co-founder of the blog Filmhash.