TEL AVIV – Ronit Elkabetz, one of the great luminaries of the Israeli film industry, died Tuesday morning after a private battle with cancer. She was 51.
The actress and filmmaker was known equally for her striking dark looks and immense emotional vulnerability onscreen. Her life ended just as her career flourished at an all-time high: In 2014, Elkabetz’s film “Gett: The Trail of Viviane Amsalem,” which she co-wrote and co-directed alongside her brother Shlomi Elkabetz, was awarded the Israeli Ophir Award for best film, the Jewish State’s equivalent of the Academy Award. “Gett” went on to serve as Israel’s 2014 entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards, and also earned a nomination for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2015 Golden Globes.
“Gett” was the third installment in a trilogy about a woman trapped in an unhappy marriage. The Elkabetz siblings began telling the story of shackled Viviane Amsalem, which stunned both Israeli and international auds with its searing take on the injustices of Israeli rabbinical law, in the 2004 pic “To Take A Wife,” which they followed up in 2008 with “Seven Days.”
Ronit Elkabetz was born in the southern Israeli town of Beersheba in 1964 to Moroccan immigrant parents. The eldest of four siblings, she spoke both Arabic and French in her working-class home, and – banking on her glossy jet-black hair and porcelain skin – she began her career as an Israeli fashion model.
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Elkabetz never studied acting, but in 1990 she took her first lead role in Israel, starring in “The Intended” alongside actor Shuli Rand, who would become her longtime partner. Rand (“Ushpizin”) famously later became ultra-Orthodox.
Three years later, she earned her first Israeli Ophir Award for her turn as Pnina in the 1994 family drama “Sh’Chur.”
In 1997, Elkabetz moved to Paris to study at the avant-garde stage ensemble Theatre du Soleil. She supported herself by working as a waitress, and in 2001, she earned her Parisian big break when she starred in the French film “Origine controlee.”
That role marked the beginning of Elkabetz’s dual French-Israeli career, and over the course of the next decade, she split her life between Paris and Tel Aviv.
That same year, Elkabetz nabbed another Ophir Award in Israel, this time for what remains one of her most enduring roles – as Judith in “Late Marriage,” a divorcee and single mother locked in an affair with a Georgian-Israeli PhD student (Lior Ashkenazi) trapped between his love for her and his parents’ insistence on a traditional arranged marriage. “Late Marriage” was a critical smash in Israel, earned a screening in Un Certain Regard at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival, and established Elkabetz as Israel’s preeminent actress of a certain age.
Between 2001 and 2009, Elkabetz took on a number of complex roles – an aging prostitute struggling to raise her teenage daughter in “Or: My Treasure” (2004); as the heroine restaurant owner in “The Band’s Visit” (2007); and a narcissistic mother oblivious to the strugglers of her own family in “Jaffa” (2009).
“Or” earned the Camera d’Or and the Grand Prize Prix Regards Jeune Award for Best Feature at that year’s Cannes Film Festival, and the critically-acclaimed “The Band’s Visit” won eight Israeli Ophir Awards and was initially submitted as the nation’s entry for Best Foreign Film before being swapped, due to a ruling over too much English dialogue, for “Beaufort.”
Elkabetz’s versatility, beauty and magnetism prompted the New York Times, in 2008, to dub her “Israel’s Meryl Streep,” while other international critics compared her to an Almodovar heroine.
In the same decade, Elkabetz also branched out as a screenwriter and director, launching the Viviane Amsalem trilogy alongside her younger brother.
Her battle with cancer was not exactly a secret. She was seen over the past year wearing a series of wigs, and walked the red carpet at the 72nd Golden Globe Awards in a floor-length black gown and a buzz cut. But she did not comment on her illness publicly, and news of her death Tuesday morning took many in Israel by surprise.
In 2015, Elkabetz presided over Cannes’ Critics Week.
Speaking this morning to the Israeli media, former Israeli President Shimon Peres called the multi-hyphenate “an extraordinary cultural ambassador for the state of Israel,” adding that “on the various stages of the world, Ronit represented the citizens of Israel and the state of Israel with great pride, creativity and beauty.”
In a sign of how beloved she was by the Israeli creative community, her coffin will be displayed at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque on Wednesday, and the public is invited to file past in mourning, before her funeral Wednesday afternoon at Israel’s Kiryat Shaul cemetery.
Elkabetz is survived by her husband, the architect Avner Yashar and three-year-old twins.