A chamber piece of all-consuming intensity, “To Take A Wife” features yet another brilliant performance by powerhouse actress Ronit Elkabetz in her co-directing debut. If Edward Albee were Jewish, this is the kind of family he would write about, with its practiced aptitude for mental torture. Elkabetz co-helms with her brother Shlomi, another novice, and together their razor sharp look at a marriage not so much frayed as eviscerated leaves the viewer emotionally exhausted. Venice screening received a standing ovation; festivals will be the first to jump, with arthouse buyers to follow.
An astonishing eight-minute sequence shot mostly in extreme close-up opens the pic, as a mute, distraught Viviane (Elkabetz) is cajoled and berated by her seven older brothers. It’s 1979 in Haifa, and the men have crowded around their sister in her claustrophobic kitchen to dissuade her from leaving her husband. The camera remains on her pale face, jet black hair piled up and dark purple bags around her eyes, as the men verbally bat her about with all the traditional reasons for staying in her dysfunctional marriage.
Viviane and husband Eliyahu (Simon Abkarian) are first generation Israelis from Morocco: she works out of their home as a beautician, he has a job at the post office. They’ve been together for 20 years, have four children together and live with his elderly mother (Sulika Kadosh), the kind of quiet woman whose eyes show nothing but disapproval. Eliyahu’s life is inflexibly bound by Orthodox tradition: respect in synagogue and control at home enable him to cope with his acute sense of displacement in an ever-modernizing Israel.
She’s more concerned with holding the family together and trying to carve a small piece of happiness out for all of them; to Viviane, questions of religious duty should be subservient to life. Eliyahu’s rigid inability to express love or appreciation sent her into the arms of Albert (Gilbert Melki) three years earlier, and her former lover’s return renews her desperation.
When Viviane does fully explode, it’s a devastating blast of frightening intensity. Both partners act out in passive-aggressive ways, but it’s Eliyahu’s calm, quiet punishments, meted out for her perceived misdeeds, that become so insidiously corrosive. His manipulation of the emotionally battered children (all terrific in their roles) makes for difficult viewing. There’s more than a little autobiography here, and the dialogue, shifting back and forth between languages, is shatteringly raw throughout.
Elkabetz’s searing portrayal takes the breathe away. She’s proved herself before, most recently as the prostitute mother in “Or,” but here she exhibits a Magnani-like power which suggests the makings of a legendary Medea or Phaedra.
Still, this isn’t simply a showcase for a great actress, but a fully realized film deeply sensitive to the power of camera movements and the need to harness them to emotion and character. In the Elkabetzes’ skilled hands, the HD format gives the flexibility and tone needed to capture these difficult, complex characters and their pained world.