GETT: THE TRIAL OF VIVIANE AMSALEM
Directors: Ronit Elkabetz and Shlomi Elkabetz
Cast: Ronit Elkabetz, Simon Abkarian, Menashe Noy, Sasson Gabai, Eli Gornstein, Rami Danon, Roberto Pollak
Running Time: 1:55
Release Date: 2/13/15 (limited); 2/27/15 (wider)
Review by Mark Dujsik | February 26, 2015
It's not so much the length of time depicted in Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem that is overwhelming as it is the frequency with which there are gaps in time. The divorce trial between Viviane (co-screenwriter/co-director Ronit Elkabetz) and her husband Elisha (Simon Abkarian) repeatedly starts and stops for different intervals of time—a couple of weeks, two months, half a year. At certain points, Elkabetz and her sibling co-screenwriter/co-director Shlomi Elkabetz do the math for us. A year and a half, three years, and, at the end, five years have passed. Every time, there is no end in sight for this civil trial, and each time the film restarts in court, we think there might be progress. Each and every time, our hopes are dashed. It's exhausting.
Part of the problem is because the husband doesn't show up in court—this, despite a summons, threats of having his driver's license (which he doesn't have) or his credits cards (which he doesn't use) or his bank account (which is a joint account with Viviane) blocked, and even promises of jail time. Elisha doesn't want a divorce. Viviane, in a well-earned rant in court late in the film, points out that, if a husband doesn't show up twice for divorce proceedings in a courtroom in America, the divorce is granted, in spite of any objections he might have.
Viviane isn't in the United States, though. She's in Israel, and that's the bigger problem. The judges are a trio of rabbis (Eli Gornstein, Rami Danon, and Roberto Pollak) who have no power to grant a divorce unless the husband agrees to it or they have a legal cause. Her reasons are that they are not compatible and that she no longer loves him. That, the rabbis say, is not a cause. From the start, they are in agreement that Viviane should return home and make her marriage work. After all, Elisha is willing to take her back, and isn't that what matters?
Whenever the husband doesn't arrive in court, the rabbis openly question why Viviane and her attorney Carmel (Menashe Noy) bothered to come. We spend most of the film wondering why Viviane shows up to court at all, considering that pretty much everyone there seems to treat her as an unnecessary entity.
We don't even see Viviane for the first few minutes of the film. The camera stays on the men in the room as they talk about her. When we do finally see her, she sits silently. The rabbis only notice her when she speaks out of turn, and that's only to scold her for speaking when no one has spoken to her. Elkabtez' performance is an exceptional study in how much an actor can say without saying a word. It's all about the mounting frustration—the moments in which she wants to say something but holds her tongue until she no longer can. For her, this is an endurance test, not a court proceeding.
The film is clearly critical of this system, in which religious tradition renders an entire sex legally powerless. What's important, though, is how it criticizes the system. Over the course of the film, there is only the single righteous outburst that explicitly says there is something terribly wrong here. The power of the film's critique is in the overall sensation of a claustrophobic, seemingly endless, and Kafkaesque nightmare from which no one can escape because of its circular logic.
Until the final two shots, we only enter a pair of rooms throughout the film—the courtroom itself, a white-walled chamber with two tables and the judges' bench, and the hallway outside the room, which is crowded with people waiting for whatever justice this one-sided system of civil law is capable of offering. We see nothing of these characters' lives outside of the trial, but we learn everything we need to know about them through testimonies (The film is the third in a series about the character of Viviane, following To Take a Wife from 2004 and 7 Days from 2008, although it possesses a self-contained narrative).
We learn that Viviane and Elisha have been married for 30 years, that she has been unhappy in the marriage from the start ("We were young and got married," she says in answer to one of the judge's questions about why she married him in the first place), and that she has been seriously considering divorce for about 10 years. For the last three years, she has been living with her family and is ready to move into an apartment on her own. She doesn't want alimony payments, since she has a job as a hairdresser. She isn't dating anyone else. She simply wants out of the marraige.
Witnesses arrive after the court orders them to do so, since it's apparent that every witness wants to maintain some level of social decorum. They don't want to speak ill of Elisha, who is a respected member of the community. They can sympathize with Viviane's desire for freedom, although many of them are too stuck in their understanding of the tradition of marriage to actually be on her side. We catch people in half-truths and outright lies, and Viviane paints a portrait of a potentially abusive relationship that no one else could see—or would recognize even if they did.
We understand everything, that is, save for Elisha's rationale for blocking the divorce. It's clearly about power for him, but wisely, Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem saves his real motivation until the final minutes of the film. What we learn is pitiful, but the film leaves a couple of questions for us: How much is freedom worth, and at a certain price, does it cease to be freedom?
Copyright © 2015 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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