In its New York City Premiere at the 24th New York Jewish Film Festival Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem screened to a packed audience. The film opens in a room which is stark white. Through various points in the film, in this atmosphere of sterility and certitude sit the major game players: three rabbi judges, two spouses, and their lawyers. As needed by the main characters, additional players will enter and leave. These are the witnesses the couple have called in as their defense. All are and will be wearing clothing mostly in shades of black, white and pale grey which reflect the somber atmosphere and meaning of this trial in the eyes of this community. This is a courtroom in a Mizrahi Orthodox enclave in Israel, and in this room will be the predominant action with the exception of an anteroom of the courtroom that will be shown a few times as the place where lawyers confer with their clients. But in the themes of the film, all is not black or white or even shades of grey. In dealing with human behaviors, there is never clear definitions and to imagine otherwise is folly.
The film written and directed by brother and sister Shlomi and Ronit Elkabetz is based on a harrowing true story about wife Viviane Amsalem (a brilliant Ronit Elkabetz), who wants a divorce from her husband Elisha Amsalem (an equally superb and frightening Simon Abkarian), who does not give it to her. The process takes years. The husband stalls, avoids court appearances, and continually drags out the trial. He refuses to agree to give Vivian a Gett, which in orthodox Jewish ritual is the decree to dissolve an orthodox Jewish marriage. Elisha’s obstinacy, his recalcitrance, the judges’ frustration, and the witnesses’ declarations provide tremendous comedy. But the overriding atmosphere is stunning tragedy as the Elkabetz’s reveal how a ritual created to embrace life and God is used to destroy and obliterate God’s goodness and love in a marriage.
Obtaining a divorce should be an easy matter, and it would be if this were 21st century America. But the Orthodox social construct (an admixture of ancient and modern Jewish cultural folkways), and the religious community and its rituals add layers of complexity making decreeing a Gett, a near impossibility for Viviane Amsalem because her husband will not let her out of the marriage. She has no rights in the decision. Only he can ultimately decide. And he avoids and delays the issue and trial through subterfuge, obfuscation, rebellion, no shows, and refusal to follow court proceedings.
In this the husband sacrifices his dignity, yet retains power over the rabbis/judges. He also maintains an iron control over his wife that is at once astounding, yet pathetic, infantile, and destructive. Nevertheless, he will have his way: he will not give her the Gett. Too bad for her, even if it means he dies during a process which could take decades. The scales of balance weigh in his favor: his permission must be granted for her to end her marriage to him. Even though they have been living separately and she has been an obliging wife, still making food for him and caring for their teenage children, he refuses to divorce. His consent is mandated by ancient religious law. There is no civil law to override his refusal in the orthodox community.
The film is a masterwork in that all the cinematic elements cohere and convey beautifully the decay and death of this relationship and the ridiculous irony of Elisha, who maintains the marriage in utter failure because he cannot choose to do otherwise. As the film progresses and months and years go by, we understand how an instrument, the Gett, represents a throwback into an abyss of devolution for cultural mores which should be life sustaining and nurturing but become the opposite in the will of Elisha. The Elkabetz’s screenplay, minimalist set, and cinematography are excellent complements. The camera focuses medium shots and close-ups of the judges and the spouses and focuses on side angles from the perspective of the spouses looking at each other-pitted against each other. The effect encourages our understanding of how mores and rituals can be flagrantly used to emotionally abuse and torment in a bizarre form of hatred.
The film spans years of the trial, through the judges’ intense questionings of husband and wife and witnesses as they attempt to establish fault and grounds for divorce; there are none. Numerous delays are instigated by the husband, exasperating the judges until he is held in contempt of court and imprisoned and released until the next go-round which continues in the same mode all over again. Through this we are kept in suspense, questioning all the while why is he behaving in this way? We attempt to divine what his true emotions and motives are. We wonder how Viviane can endure this humiliating process and not cave in to resignation. We attempt to ascertain whether the judges are perceptive enough to see Elisha’s behavior as intentionally hateful or whether they are blinded by their role as orthodox rabbis who must lift up the laws of paternalism. And finally, we wonder if Viviane will triumph or be made to reside in the place of hell that Elisha has consigned her to. The Elkabetz’s direction and the actors’ brilliance have completely brought us into the trial and we must endure like Viviane until the Gett is granted or another decision is made. We will not know which occurs until the bitter, brutal, and weirdly ridiculous end.
The filmmakers in revealing the truisms of this account explore the underbelly of human relationships, ego, individual rights, identity and the iron power of control that men in their insecurity enforce over women if the culture allows them to. Inherent in our understanding of this trial is the everpresent notion of the power of government and the blessing of separation of church and state. The Gett is not a civil divorce decree easily administered. It is a religious decree and only rabbi judges can administer it, for it is a solemn process to strike down what has allegedly been “blessed by God.” Throughout is the extreme irony of this question: but how blessed can a marriage be if there is no love, understanding, communion and mutual respect, no feelings that God bestows between partners? How can a couple stay together if one of them is dying inside, set adrift by neglect which the other refuses to change or modify out of disregard and arrogance of will? Isn’t this marriage a negation of all that God is supposed to stand for? Isn’t it a curse to allow such a marriage to continue simply because the man has all the rights and the woman has none? The Elkabetz’s point up these ironies. They reveal the complete meaninglessness in the rabbis’ action of hesitating to grant the decree even thought the marriage itself is not a marriage or union of love.
Throughout, with varying degrees there is a profound yet stoic look of pale death on the face of Viviane, even as she raises her voice in frustration at the judges and at Elisha, even through the tears she sheds. Likewise, there is a look of deep, profound, and haughty anger on the face of Elisha. Throughout the film these two are fixed in a soul war against each other. This is deadly struggle. Not a drop of blood is shed, not a hand is raised, but there is continual death and it is unfolding before the three judges, the two attorneys, the witnesses and us. We cannot help but be empathetic to Viviane, for she is on trial for her life, her identity, her autonomy, and it is killing her.
Will the judges, males in this paternalistic system, override her husband’s obstinacy and allow her to win, knowing what that win means? Winning will be a symbol of resurrection, an affirmation of Viviane’s new autonomous identity where she can be her own person; she will be a mythic symbol to women everywhere in the orthodox community and a potential danger to the folkways of the community itself. Or will the rabbis refuse to give her a Gett and allow Elisha to win, placing her in a psychological and emotional grave? By delivering her into a form of personal oblivion, that also will be a symbol to the community; it may further taint the relationships between men and women that the filmmakers reveal through the witness testimony are clearly under strain.
A key point of the film is upheld in how the Elkabetz’s reveal that divorce in this orthodox community is a profound event with great social ramifications; all orthodox eyes are watching and judging. Thus, a Gett cannot be easily granted, for either way in Vivian’s favor or in Elisha’s, the result will be laden with meaning. If only the case were clear cut, that Elisha was physically abusive or that Viviane was an adulterer. But the rabbis’ rigorous examination to determine whether or not she has been a loyal, dutiful, wife and whether the husband has been physically abusive or untoward in other ways, yields nothing. Both have been upright and have followed the letter of the law. In appearances all is fine. But in the spirit of the law of love, this marriage has been over for a long time and as marriages go, it is an abomination. Will the rabbis/judges see this? It won’t matter if Elisha wants to torment Viviane to their graves. His say-so is what matters.
From start to finish Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem is unforgettable. It yields up a brilliant script and mesmerizing performances. You will be enthralled and stunned though the action predominately involves sitting, standing and talking. But it is in what the words reveal, what the facial expressions show, what the speeches hide and enforce. And ultimately the action resides in the mystery of what will happen from frame to frame. The mystery of human behavior is the action that is intense and spellbinding. This is a film about men and women, their force of will, what binds them, what anchors their love, what destroys it. Don’t miss it.
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