Talk about feeling trapped. In the unexpectedly gripping Israeli drama Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem, a woman who has lived in a suffocating marriage since she was a teenager - she's in her 40s now - seeks a divorce. But in Israel, matters of matrimony are controlled not by the civil courts but by Orthodox rabbis. The dissolution of a union can happen only with their approval - and the consent of the husband.
With the odds stacked against her - a patriarchal social order and rabbinic law - Viviane (Ronit Elkabetz) nonetheless pushes on, enlisting a lawyer (Menashe Noy) to fight for her freedom. Almost all of the action in Gett (a gett is a divorce decree) transpires within the confines of an unadorned hearing room as the trio of judges admonish and advise. The husband, Elisha (Simon Abkarian), sits with a look of sour disdain, while his brother, Shimon (Sasson Gabai), also a rabbi, argues his case. Viviane's lawyer, a secularist (he refuses to wear a skullcap in court, even after he is told to), pleads for understanding.
Gett - from cowriter and codirector Shlomi Elkabetz, collaborating with his sister, and star, Ronit - was Israel's official entry in the foreign-language category for the 2015 Academy Awards. It didn't make the final cut, but it was one of this year's Golden Globe nominees, and it claimed the best picture award at Israel's equivalent of the Oscars. It's easy to see why: Shot in intense close-ups, the better to study the emotions burning off the characters' skin, the film is all talk and gestures, but it begins to take your breath away like a chase movie would.
As the hearings drag on, weeks turning to months and months to years, a sense of Kafkaesque absurdity informs the proceedings. The three jurists (Eli Gornstein, Rami Danon, Roberto Pollack) scribble notes, nodding and winking like cartoon confreres. Witnesses are brought in to support Viviane's claims of mental cruelty, and to confirm Elisha's righteousness, tolerance, empathy. You don't believe them, or him, but the fact that the judges seem to adds another layer of impossible cruelty.
Elkabetz, alternately resigned and raging, stoic and sad, bitter humor in her eyes, is riveting. Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem takes its time to unfold, but like its star, the film presents its case in powerful, persuasive ways.
Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem ***1/2 (Out of four stars)
Directed by Ronit Elkabetz and Shlomi Elkabetz. With Ronit Elkabetz, Simon Abkarian, Menashe Noy, Sasson Gabai. In Hebrew, French, and Arabic with subtitles. Distributed by
Music Box Films.
Running time: 1 hour, 55 mins.
Parent's guide: No MPAA rating (adult themes).
Playing at: Ritz Five.EndText