Ronit Elkabetz, one of the brightest stars in the Israeli film industry, died on April 19 of cancer at the age of 51.
The public is invited to pay its respects on Wednesday at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. There will be a memorial service for her there at 12 p.m. and at 3 p.m. there will be a funeral at Kiryat Shaul.
Her death is a terrible loss for Israeli cinema, since she was both Israel’s leading actress and an important director.
She was a great actress who lit up the screen whenever she appeared on it. When Elkabetz stepped into the frame, even if her character was not the focus of the scene, it was impossible to look at anyone else. She was stunning, a great beauty, but it was much more than her beauty that commanded attention. She came alive on screen, as only a handful of actors in the world ever can. When she performed, she disappeared into the character.
Her talent played a significant part in transforming the Israeli movie industry from the backwater it was in the Nineties to the internationally celebrated creative powerhouse it is today.
She also appeared in a number of French films and television series in recent years.
She is best known for two Israeli films in which she acted, Dover Koshashvili’s A Late Marriage, in which she played the hero’s divorced lover, and Eran Kolirin’s The Band’s Visit, where she was a lonely woman in a Negev town who opened her heart to an Egyptian stranger. Both of these roles won her Ophir Awards for Best Actress, and both movies were among the most celebrated Israeli films of all time.
But she was also known for the trilogy of films she co-directed with her brother, Shlomi Elkabetz, and which she also starred in and co-wrote: To Take a Wife (2004), Shiva (2008) and Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem (2014). These movies played all over the world and won a number of prizes, including the Audience Award for To Take a Wife at the Venice International Film Festival in 2004.
Gett was nominated for a Golden Globe.
Based on the story of her Moroccan-born parents’ unhappy marriage, the three films chronicle the development of Viviane, a character Elkabetz played, who married as a teenager, bore four children and then found that life with the husband who was chosen for her was stultifying. In telling the story of her mother, she also told the story of a generation of Mizrahi women who had never had anyone speak for them before. In the first scene of To Take a Wife, Viviane tells her family she wants a divorce, and then is pressured into submission by her male relatives.
Shiva continues Viviane’s story, in the context of a family funeral. The final film, Gett, is set entirely inside the divorce courts.
The children are grown and Viviane begs her husband to free her. She pleads for a divorce, but she is also pleading for her life, for the right to her own existence.
Gett could have been merely a polemic about the archaic Israeli divorce laws.
But in the hands of the Elkabetz siblings, enhanced by Elkabetz’s passionate performance, it was so much more. The character of the husband is not a vile schemer, trying to extort money from his wife. He is simply a man who has very little and still loves her, but who is also using a system that gives him all the power to exert control over her.
The sad psychological dynamic between the two was what gave the movie its power.
The film, which was shown in the Knesset to try to explain the injustice of the divorce system to lawmakers, won the Ophir Award for Best Picture in 2014, and was shown all over the world.
Manhola Dargis of The New York Times called the film, “gripping cinema from start to finish.” She also praised Elkabetz’s performance, writing, “With her dramatically pale face framed by a voluptuous dark cloud of hair, Ms. Elkabetz is never more effective than when she’s holding still, her face so drained of emotion that it transforms into a screen within the screen on which another, indelibly private movie is playing” – a wonderful description of Elkabetz’s artistry.
There was something about Elkabetz in real life that was “indelibly private” as well.
Although I interviewed her twice, once when To Take a Wife was released and once when she was receiving an achievement award at the Atlanta Film Festival in 2009, I got the sense that although she was happy to talk about the family saga on which her trilogy was based and about her work, she was not comfortable opening up about herself.
She starred in many important Israeli films, among them Keren Yeday’s Or, which won the Camera d’Or Prize at the Cannes Film Festival, playing an AIDS-infected Tel Aviv prostitute; Michal Aviad’s Invisible, as a rape victim contemplating revenge on her attacker when he is released from prison; Shmuel Hasfari’s Sh’Chur, as a retarded young woman; Guy Nattiv’s Mabul, as the mother of an autistic teenager; and Amos Gitai’s Alila. She co-wrote the screenplay for Scar with director Haim Bouzaglo.
Currently she is starring in the French television miniseries Trepalium, the story of a dystopian future in which she plays the French prime minister, with appropriate authority. It can be seen in Israel on YES.
The HOT Cable network as well as YES announced it will show Or, A Late Marriage and To Take a Wife on VOD as a tribute.
Among the French movies in which she appeared were Andre Techine’s The Girl on the Train, Fanny Ardant’s Ashes and Blood and Pascal Elbe’s Tete de Turc.
Elkabetz inevitably became a celebrity, and she dressed the part. While it is quite normal for nominees to show up at the Ophir Awards (the Israeli equivalent of the Oscars) in a wrinkled T-shirt and old jeans, Elkabetz dressed like the diva that she was.
I affectionately called her the Cher of Israel because of her outfits, which were usually as outrageous as they were revealing. The most fun part of the Ophir ceremony was seeing what Elkabetz was wearing.
But she did not grow up with much glamour.
Elkabetz was born in Beersheba, the oldest child and only daughter of Moroccan- born parents much like the ones portrayed in her trilogy. The family moved to Kiryat Yam, where she was raised. Elkabetz got into modeling at a young age and then moved on to acting.
She is survived by her husband and threeyear- old twins.
Tributes have been pouring in. Former president Shimon Peres called her “an extraordinary cultural ambassador for the State of Israel... on the various stages of the world, Ronit represented the citizens of Israel and the State of Israel with great pride, creativity and beauty.”
Director Amos Gitai said in an interview with Army Radio Tuesday morning: “It’s no wonder she captivated the world’s attention, she was loved by everyone... she was simply spectacular.”
In our 2009 interview, Elkabetz spoke about her attitude toward movies, and her career, “I’m attracted to cinema that speaks to the heart. In Israel, there’s been a social awakening in films... I am very much part of that minority that believes that movies can change things, but they must also speak to me artistically.”