Siblings Ronit and Shlomi Elkabetz bring their blistering trilogy of male domination in an Israeli family to a rewarding close with “Gett, the Trial of Viviane Amsalem.” In this expertly written, brilliantly acted film, Viviane struggles against her passive-aggressive husband and the rabbinical judges to legally end her marriage (a “gett” is a divorce document, obtainable in Israel only by going through religious courts), but the process takes years thanks to a bias that keeps women shackled to their husbands. Set entirely in the courtroom and judiciously alternating between scathing drama and bitter comedy, “Gett” will get deserved attention from niche distribs.
The characters of Viviane (Ronit Elkabetz) and Elisha (Simon Abkarian) were first seen in “To Take a Wife,” when she wanted to leave her frigid marriage of 20 years; in “The Seven Days,” they were separated, but his hold remained suffocating. Each film has its own style: The first utilizes intense closeups and a fixed camera to convey the restrictive, stifling atmosphere within the unhappy Amsalem home, while a more freewheeling structure is employed in “The Seven Days,” allowing the helmers to encompass a larger range of side roles. With “Gett,” they’ve returned to a tighter focus, crafting each shot as if it were being seen from another character’s gaze. Though the pic can’t escape feeling like a hothouse theater piece, the use of p.o.v. brings a necessary visual dimension to the stagebound courtroom proceedings.
Familiarity with the earlier films isn’t a requirement for comprehending what’s happening, or why. More vital as background info is the fact that Israel doesn’t have civil marriage or divorce: Matrimony is controlled by the Orthodox rabbinate, which decides who can get hitched or unhitched. It’s an inexplicably overlooked, hidebound situation as punishing as any fundamentalist agenda, especially toward women for whom a contested divorce is practically impossible.
It takes several minutes for the camera to see Viviane, her absence from the frame as complete as her metaphorical invisibility to her husband and the three rabbinical judges of the court (Eli Gorstein, Rami Danon, Roberto Pollack). At first Elisha doesn’t even show up for the proceedings, but finally he’s forced to attend, his relative silence another manifestation of his usual passive-aggressive manipulation. He’s represented in court by his older brother Shimon (Sasson Gabay), while she has lawyer Carmel Ben Tavin (Menashe Noy).
From her first day in court to her last, the process will take Viviane five years: half a decade of frustration, stonewalling and humiliation, during most of which she struggles to remain dignified and determined. Witnesses are called, each an identifiable type whose theatricality adds notes of levity but doesn’t diminish the seriousness of purpose. All testify to Elisha being an outwardly exemplary husband, yet his emotional cruelty is never far from the surface — his placid, often silent exterior masking an unbending will intent on punishing Viviane for her effrontery at wanting her own life, and for questioning his perfection.
Carmel tries to prove cause for divorce, as incompatibility is not a legally recognized reason, but his arguments fall on unfriendly ears. The judges, religious men skilled in sophistry and pledged to a misogynistic code that refuses to recognize a woman’s individuality, keep postponing the case, wearing Viviane’s patience down with delays, signaled by titles at the bottom of the screen: Two weeks later, three months later …
The beautifully modulated script, ripe with moments of liberating humor, builds to a crescendo of indignation, allowing Elkabetz several cathartic outbursts, but they’re no more riveting than the actress’ silences. Largely shot in profile or full on, her pale, wearied face starkly contrasted with her black hair and black clothes against the court’s undecorated white walls, Elkabetz has an earthy iconic presence in the manner of Anna Magnani. Her Viviane can no longer stomach this entrapment, and she’s worn down to the point where she turns up at court wearing inappropriate red, and then unthinkingly allows her abundant hair to cascade down around her shoulders. For the judges this is an affront, a sign of the woman’s libertine ways.
Abkarian has the less showy role, but his simmering presence is felt throughout via punishing glares and occasional pointed remarks in French (as a first-generation Moroccan Israeli, he’s more comfortable in French and Arabic than in Hebrew). Noy is also commendable as Viviane’s lawyer, who harbors an unrealizable attraction to his client. Smaller roles have a stagey feel, but the stereotypes they embody are no less real despite a certain excess, whether it’s Viviane’s hilariously overbearing sister-in-law Rachel (Rubi Porat Shoval) or the Amsalems’ controlling neighbor Simon (legendary actor Ze’ev Revach).
Film history is scattered with riveting courtroom dramas, from “Madame X” to “Anatomy of a Murder,” each finding ways of keeping the action flowing despite constant chatter and the single-room locale. Scripting and acting are keys, but the Elkabetzes’ lensing choices also draw the viewer in, forcing audiences to question the judgmental nature of the gaze. For some, the theatrical nature of “Gett” may be a flaw, yet it has an immediacy precisely because of the stripped-down function of its staging.