Injustice System—GETT: THE TRIAL OF VIVIANE AMSALEM

by Len Weiler

Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem is a visually austere, deceptively simple, yet remarkably stirring and heart-wrenching drama about a woman’s quest to free herself from an oppressive marriage. And it features a stunning performance from its star. An inquiry into, and an exposé about, the institution of divorce in Israel, this picture has been a sensation in its homeland, winning the Best Picture award at the 2014 Israeli Academy Awards, as well as numerous other awards and kudos internationally. Gett has sparked a national debate about gender injustice in Israel’s domestic relations court system, and the treatment of women under Jewish law (Halakhah) more generally.

Viviane Amsalem (Ronit Elkabetz) has been married for thirty years to Elisha (Simon Abkarian), a man completely incompatible with her, whom she does not love, and whom over many years she has come to despise. Their marriage has long since disintegrated, their children are grown. Viviane left Elisha three years ago. She wants nothing from him but her freedom, a legal divorce known as a Gett (or Get). Without this, as a separated wife, she is a woman without status, neither married nor single; unable to be seen in the company of “strange” men, much less date, without being judged as loose and disreputable; a non-person. For three years, Elisha has refused to consent to a Gett. Without her husband’s consent, she is stuck.

GettPosterIn the Jewish state, civil courts have no power to grant divorces (or to marry people)—that is the exclusive province of the rabbinical courts, run by orthodox rabbis following orthodox Jewish law. Halakhah provides that a divorce can only occur if the husband consents of his own free will. A divorce cannot be compelled over the husband’s veto. Rabbi-judges sympathetic to the wife can encourage a man to give consent, and occasionally may even sanction him for refusing, although in most instances their inclinations may not even extend that far. Beyond this their hands are tied.

An Israeli woman stuck in this predicament is known as an agunah—a chained woman. But Viviane is determined to unchain herself. She has brought an action to obtain her divorce. The movie begins in a courtroom three years after the case was filed. For the first several minutes, we only see and hear the men: Viviane’s advocate, Carmel Ben Tovim (Menashe Noy), her husband Elisha, who is representing himself, and the three bearded judges making inquiries. When the chief judge asks Elisha why he is refusing to grant his wife a Gett, he pauses and looks at his wife for several moments; this is when we first see her, through the hard eyes of her husband. She is dressed in black, her dark hair pulled back away from her pale, un-made-up face into a tight bun, a handsome woman with a firm resolve. She gives him a hard look back. “Never, Viviane,” he half whispers, half hisses to her in response to the judge’s question.

The proceedings are protracted. Elisha’s brother, Rabbi Shimon (the remarkable Sasson Gabai), comes in to represent him, adding a bit of tabasco in his skirmishes with Viviane’s counsel, Carmel. More hearings are scheduled, several are continued or postponed because Elisha chooses not to come, arguments are made, witnesses are called—terrific character actors playing interesting characters: family members, neighbors, and so forth—adding a bit of variety, local color and occasional comic relief to the ensemble. This goes on for five years (over the course of an under two-hour movie). Our consciousness of the unfairness and absurdity of this system steadily grows over the course of the film, as does our identification with Viviane, her increasingly impossible situation, her amazing integrity, and her indomitable determination to obtain her personal liberty.

Ronit Elkabetz, in addition to starring in this film, co-wrote and co-directed Gett , with her brother, Shlomi Elkabetz. They decided on an unusual and effective approach to the filming of this courtroom drama. We moviegoers are used to stories presented from an omniscient perspective. The director decides where the camera is positioned, and thus how we see the action, which can be from anywhere: from a neutral corner in the room, looking over a character’s shoulder, peering in through a window, swooping in from above or below, tracking an actor’s movement, or any combination of perspectives. The directors of Gett chose to position the camera so that everything we see is through the eyes of someone in the room. This visual point of view shifts from moment to moment, moving from one character’s visual perspective to another’s depending on what’s going on, but it is always personal and human-scaled. As a consequence, many of the shots are close-ups of the protagonists as they listen, react, ask or answer questions. Occasionally we get a wider-angle view, generally through the eyes of a judge looking out at his courtroom. What’s more, the entire film is shot within the court building, mostly in the one courtroom—a stark, white-walled fluorescent-lit room, simply furnished with utilitarian, government-issue tables and chairs.

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Viviane (Ronit Elkabetz), Carmel (Menashe Noy) and Elisha (Simon Abkarian) in Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem . Courtesy of Music Box Films.

The result of all this is a perspective that is both intimate and appropriately claustrophobic throughout the picture. These techniques and this environment conspire not only to reveal but to draw us into the emotional drama that is taking place. There is plenty of time to closely watch these people, to penetrate beneath their surfaces, to see and feel undercurrents of frustration, of pride, of loss, grief, hate, and weariness.

All of the acting in Gett is first-rate, but Ronit Elkabetz’ performance is simply sensational. As the object of much of the courtroom discussion and testimony, Viviane is required to sit quietly, to listen and observe but not to talk unless invited to do so. Yet, in silence, she speaks eloquently to us with her face, her eyes, the position of her hands, her posture, with her entire being. Most of the time when she is asked questions, she answers humbly or at least calmly, trying to demonstrate respect for those judging her case, but never does her humility appear as weakness, always her spirit and determination illuminate the courtroom. Given the constraints of her character’s situation, what Elkabetz is able to deliver is remarkable. Despite the multiple points of observation we get in the movie, there is really only one point of view—hers. And when Viviane does speak her mind, when the explosion finally comes, her performance is a revelation. It’s reason enough to see this movie.

Eventually, I even found a degree of compassion, or perhaps pity, for Elisha, a lonely, sullenly narcissistic guy clinging to his dead marriage to fend off the void that lies beyond. At one point, he is ready to throw in the towel, but after saying that he will give Viviane her divorce, he finds that he simply cannot utter the requisite ritual words to his wife: “And you are hereby permitted to any man.”

Which speaks to the concept of a wife as chattel, as a possession, an object. Elisha feels this way. His ownership of his wife’s status gives him power. If he gives that up he has nothing. In their demeanor and by their questions, the judges seem to share this notion of woman as a commodity. There’s a moment mid-movie where the camera, reflecting a judge’s POV, tracks his glance under the table to gaze at Viviane’s legs. Another time, when the men’s discourse begins to slide into a deliberation regarding Viviane’s moral and sexual virtue, she expresses her disgust—and shocks the judges—by immodestly letting down her luxurious dark hair, an unabashed breach of propriety.

She understands what’s going on, and she is not having it. There comes a point when Viviane demands to be seen as a human being, not merely as a thing about which her husband has to make a decision. “What about me?” she cries. “When will you see me? I could drop dead in front of you, and all you’d see was him!” And, of course she is right.

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Viviane (Ronit Elkabetz) in Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem . Courtesy of Music Box Films.

I have been a family lawyer for nearly forty years. In California, where I practice, we have had “no fault” divorce for forty-five years, where either spouse can request that their marriage be terminated based on irreconcilable differences, a claim which is subjective and irrefutable. No fault divorce is available in all fifty of the United States, in most of the Western world, and in many other countries, from China to South Africa to Chile (some with prescribed minimum periods of marital separation as a prerequisite). Although attendant issues can make a divorce complicated and difficult, getting a divorce, that is, a change in one’s marital status, is pretty simple.

So I was absolutely shocked at how Viviane was treated, at her lack of rights and at the court’s inability to grant her the divorce that she sought. I asked myself whether I was being too parochial, expecting all cultures and systems to be as “advanced” as my own. Is the Israeli model so qualitatively different from earlier systems that existed in California through the 1960s and in some states until just a few years ago, where a wife or husband had to prove “fault”—the other party’s violence, adultery, extreme cruelty, etc.—to establish grounds for divorce?

The answer is yes. The trouble with Israel’s divorce regime is not with its definition of legal grounds but the fact of its patent sex discrimination. A man’s consent is required for a woman to obtain a divorce, regardless of grounds. Indeed, with the husband’s consent, couples in Israel can easily procure a no-fault divorce; but without his consent the wife is stuck, a chained woman. Consent of the husband is similarly required in the surrounding Muslim countries. But because Israel is a place with which we have such strong cultural and political affinities, a democratic society that supports open political discourse, free speech, religious tolerance, and women’s rights generally, I, for one, am especially appalled at this medieval, degrading treatment of women there.

According to Susan Weiss, an Israeli lawyer and activist, the root of the problem may lie in the ceding of exclusive power over marriage and divorce to the most conservative element of Israeli society, the exclusively male Orthodox rabbinate, and its belief in a theological order in which wives are intended to serve their husbands as the priests are intended to serve their God. The rabbis’ understanding is supported by the patriarchal nature of ancient Jewish law in matters of marriage and family, an example of which is the Jewish wedding ceremony itself, called a kinyan, a ritual of acquisition, in which the husband acquires his wife. (The term kinyan is also used in commercial contracts with a similar meaning.)

Gett: The Trial of Viviane Ansalem does not delve into such historical analysis. Rather, through its vivid depiction of one determined woman’s divorce trial, the movie eloquently and powerfully illustrates the effect of these laws and practices. The austere and somewhat claustrophobic setting may be off-putting to some, but it had the opposite effect for me; I quickly became caught up in this movie, as the layers of the onion were slowly peeled away, and the true nature of this couple’s relationship, the pain each experienced, the society in which they lived, and the nature of the system governing their case were revealed.

Horizontal RuleRead EatDrinkFilms’ exclusive interview with director Shlomo Elkabetz here. Next week in EatDrinkFilms read  what a Rabbi from Israel thinks about Gett.

Gett: The Trial of Viviane Ansalem is playing now in New York and Los Angeles and will open in selected theaters throughout the US beginning February 27th, including Landmark Embarcadero Center Cinema in SF, Landmark Shattuck in Berkeley, Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael, and Camera 3 in San Jose.

You may use our affiliate links from Amazon to get the first two films of the trilogy To Take a Wife (2004) and Seven Days (aka Shiva, 2008). You may also get other films starring and/or directed by Ronit Elkabetz (To Take a Wife, Seven Days, The Band’s Visit, Or (My Treasure), and Late Marriage) by clicking here.

Horizontal RuleLenWeilerLen Weiler, a film aficionado, has written about movies over the past four years on his blog, Notes on Films. He also has been a San Francisco Bay Area attorney since 1976, specializing in family law. 

Notes on Films: http://cinemiudex.blogspot.com/

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