Caught in a trap

'Gett’ examines the injustice of our antiquated divorce laws.

A still from the film 'Gett,’ which examines Jewish divorce laws (photo credit: PR)
A still from the film 'Gett,’ which examines Jewish divorce laws
(photo credit: PR)
Hebrew title: Gett: Hamishpat shel Viviane Amsalem
Directed by Ronit and Shlomi Elkabetz With Ronit Elkabetz, Simon Abkarian, Menashe Noy, Sasson Gabai
Running time: 115 minutes.
In Hebrew, Arabic and French.
Check with theaters for subtitle information.
It may seem insane, but the truth is that even though we live in the Start-up Nation, no woman in Israel can get a divorce without her husband’s consent. For most people, the antiquated divorce laws are not a major problem, but if you are a woman trying to divorce a husband who refuses to end the marriage, this issue takes over your life.
Siblings Ronit and Shomi Elkabetz have made a fine film that uses a struggle over a divorce as its dramatic core. Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem won awards for Best Feature and the Audience Award at the Jerusalem Film Festival and is currently being screened at the Toronto International Film Festival.
It is the siblings’ third film in their trilogy about Viviane, who is played by Ronit Elkabetz. In the first scene of the first film, To Take a Wife (2004), Viviane said she wanted a divorce at a meeting with her husband and her own male relatives, and they bullied her – a strong, outspoken woman – into staying. Her husband, Elisha (Simon Abkarian), a postal worker, did not beat her, gamble or cheat on her. The film was set in the 1980s, and the milieu was a traditional Moroccan family.
Viviane had gotten married at 15 in what was essentially an arranged match. The couple had four children, but as Viviane grew up and grew into her own, she tired of Elisha’s rigidity, his lack of joie de vivre and his insistence on religious observance. Viviane often lashed out at him, making scenes and pursuing fantasy flirtations with other men. Most husbands would have been glad to be rid of such a woman, but Elisha, either out of love or stubbornness (or a mixture of both), clung to the marriage.
In Shiva (2008), the couple were just two of a large ensemble of characters who gathered after one of Viviane’s brother’s died. One of the visiting mourners was interested in Viviane romantically, but she was still stuck in her marriage.
But in Gett, the focus is back on Viviane and Elisha. The entire film is set in the divorce-court building, or to be more precise, in the Rabbinate, either in the court or the waiting room. It’s a bold choice by the filmmakers, but it works beautifully because the claustrophobia and drabness of the setting match the couple’s soul-deadening struggle. Titles announce the time elapsed between each hearing, and towards the end we learn that five years have passed without any resolution, a shocking number, but one all-too familiar to those who have endured such battles.
The only characters are Viviane; Elisha; Carmel, her lawyer (Menashe Noy, who won the Best Actor Award at the Jerusalem Film Festival); Elisha’s rabbi brother, Simon (Sasson Gabai), who represents Elisha; the rabbinical judges (Rami Danon, Eli Gornstein and Roberto Pollak); and the various friends and relatives who come in to act as witnesses – a who’s who of Israeli film, including such actors as Ze’ev Revach, Shmil Ben-Ari, Evelin Hagoel and Rubi Porat Shoval. But the battle is mainly between Viviane and Elisha.
He is not extorting her financially – as so many men do – but simply exerting the great power the system gives him. He is an otherwise unimportant man who finds himself wielding huge power over his wife, and he can’t let give it up. The judges push him, even imprison him, but they and the system are always against the Vivianes of this world because they accept the injustice inherent in the divorce laws.
The performances by Elkabetz, Abkarian and Noy are outstanding, and Elkabetz’s impassioned speech to the judges brought tears to my eyes. Akbarian, in the least showy role, is especially good at giving glimpses of a decent man scorned who lurks under the weakling who uses the system to be a bully.
Ronit and Shlomi Elkabetz, who based this trilogy loosely on their own family history, have managed to illuminate the humanity in the characters and turn what could be a preachy, issue-oriented movie into a moving film.