(This review of “Gett, The Trial of Viviane Amsalem” appeared in a slightly different form in the Australian Jewish News on 23 October 2014.)
Directed and written by Ronit and Shlomi Elkabetz
Starring Ronit Elkabetz, Simon Abkarian, Menashe Noy, Sasson Gabay and Eli Gorstein
There are few more dramatic moments captured on film than courtroom interplay, seen in the best courtroom dramas such as “Twelve Angry Men”, “A Few Good Men” and “To Kill A Mockingbird”. But despite the many thousands of Jewish films over the past 100 years, there has only been one great Jewish courtroom drama – “Judgment at Nuremberg”.
That was then. Now there’s a second one, and it’s the opening night film in the Jewish Film Festival. “Gett, The Trial of Viviane Amsalem” is nothing but courtroom drama: no exteriors, no back story and no historic replays.
At its simplest, “Gett” is Viviane’s (Ronit Elkabetz) attempt to get a Gett, the religious Jewish divorce, from her passive-aggressive husband Elisha (Simon Abkarian). The action takes place over five years, with countless appearances by Viviane with her advocate Carmel Ben Tavin (Menashe Noy), a secular son of a noted rabbi. Despite the long-term separation and the clear breakdown of their marriage – they seem temperamentally unsuited in all ways – Elisha steadfastly refuses the divorce, even when ordered to by the three rabbinic judges, and is even willing to suffer a short stay in jail.
The point of “Gett” is crystal clear: women, at least in matters of marriage and divorce, are second-class citizens in Israel, and are effectively powerless. Viviane rarely speaks in court, and is a virtual bystander in decisions on her own fate. As Viviane, Ronit Elkabetz gives a breathtaking performance of controlled fury. She also co-directed and co-directed the film with her brother Shlomi Elkabetz. This is the third of their trilogy about the Amsalems with the same characters, following “To Take a Wife” and “The Seven Days”. But “Gett” can be appreciated on its own.
Courtroom dramas are ostensibly about justice, but what drives the action and most engages the viewer is really character, specifically the clash of characters: the judges, the witnesses, the lawyers and those on trial. And this is where “Gett” shines: a tight script (in Hebrew, French and Arabic) gives these characters much to say and do. Through the Amsalems and their advocates, relatives, friends and neighbours, we see a superb portrayal of Israeli society, one frequently infused with moments of black humour. Brilliant in all ways.