From the very first frame, sibling co-directors Ronit and Shlomi Elkabetz set the tone for exactly what they want “Gett: the Trial of Viviane Amsalem” to be. A man looks down into the camera at a character that is invisible to us at this moment, and speaks on their behalf. The camera cuts back and forth between this man, a lawyer, and a husband; the two speak back and forth with an off-screen voice about the life of a woman, who we still cannot see, even though at this point several personal details have been revealed about her. She and her husband have been separated for three years and are currently living apart, and now she is filing for divorce. After five and a half minutes, we finally see her looking defiantly at us. This woman’s name is Vivian Amsalem (played by co-writer and director Ronit Elkabetz), and although the trial and the story is hers, from that very first second we know that the men have all the control. But that won’t stop Viviane from fighting.
“Gett: the Trial of Viviane Amsalem” is an incredible look at the determination of one woman to fight against a society that tries so hard to strip her of her agency.
One of the many reasons I love going to the movies is that they allow me to catch a glimpse of worlds I will never know, and of cultures I will never get to (or have to) experience in my lifetime. The ability to walk in the shoes of another person for a little while fascinates me, and is an absolute privilege.
Set in present day Israel, where there are no civil marriages or divorces, to get a bill of divorce (also known as a “gett”) one must go through a court of rabbis, who will then decide if there are enough grounds for a divorce. However, the real problem is that the husband must consent to the divorce in order to receive the gett, and Viviane’s husband Elisha (Simon Abkarian) will not consent. What happens next is a trial lasting three years, the film never once leaving the courthouse. Text flashes across the screen signaling the passing of days, weeks, and months. We see every detail of the trial as it appears. Details of Viviane and Elisha’s home life and marriage are slowly revealed through witness testimony and rabbi interrogation. The camera remains tightly framed on the character’s faces and the room itself, emphasizing a claustrophobic atmosphere that both confines and unsettles.
As the titular character, Ronit Elkabetz is a quiet revelation. In the first half of the film, she does not get to say much, her lawyer, Carmel, often speaks on her behalf but the expressions she gives say much more than any dialogue could. Elkabetz subtly displays a blend of determination and desperation, never once overdoing it. During the third act is where she truly shines. On the stand herself, Viviane makes a passionate plea to the court (and to her husband) to finally grant her the divorce she’s wanted for many years. It’s a hard job to convey inner frustration and exhaustion; to be hard yet ultimately sympathetic, but she pulls it off. As she should, Ronit is one of Israel’s most celebrated actresses, and it shows. Here, she is a powerful force to be reckoned with. As her husband, Simon Abkarian is more than a match in stubbornness with Viviane. He stays silent as a statue, responding with the only words he needs to, “No, your honor.” It’s not hard to see why she would want to unchain herself from this man. His role is not as showy, but it’s just as essential.
The choice to set the film entirely in one room is a bold move, and in the case of this film, a powerful one. This is no gimmick. By not allowing its characters or its audience to ever leave the courtroom, we stay with these characters for better or worse, sometimes longer than we wish to. The Elkabetz siblings use the tension this creates to invoke a frustration in the audience as great as Viviane’s. You know a movie is good when you can feel yourself pulling your hair out by the end out of pure anticipation.
Marriages have been ending on the movie screen for as long as I can remember, and the same goes for courtroom dramas, but I can guarantee that you haven’t seen a film quite like this. Equal parts a passionate tale of female empowerment, and a rallying cry against the ways women are treated in this society, Gett is essential viewing. It is not to be missed. I go to the movies because I want to experience worlds that are not my own, and while I don’t wish to ever be in Viviane Amsalem’s shoes in real life, I feel for the people who do not have the ability to witness this film. Don’t be one of them.
“Gett: the Trial of Viviane Amsalem” is now playing at the Downer Theatre.