Friday, March 20, 2015

Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem (2015)

The worst thing that can be said about Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem, the latest film from Israeli sibling team Ronit Elkabetz and Shlomi Elkabetz, is that it exists in the shadow of another Middle Eastern film about a couple's divorce: Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi's 2011 masterpiece, A Separation. In fact, the couple that sat in front of me at the theater thought as much, saying that it "reminds [them] of that Iranian movie." Both films have the same basic premise: a married couple in a conservative nation are seeking a divorce and must go through an extensive legal battle to work it out. Of course, very few films can be as unfailingly remarkable as A Separation. But as far as problems for a film to have, being comparable to that stroke of genius is hardly a bad thing.

Gett tells the story of Viviane Amsalem (Ronit Elkabetz), who has shown up at the rabbinical court to proceed with her divorce trial. Her husband must consent to the divorce in order for it to go forward, but Elisha (Simon Abkarian) will not give his consent, going so far as to not even show up for court dates. Her attorney, Carmel Ben Tovim (Menashe Noy), argues to the three judges for Elisha to face punishments for his disobedience, while Elisha's representative and brother Shimon (Sasson Gabai) questions Vivian's character. Their legal struggles turn into a marathon slog, with neither side willing to budge from their stance.

What sets Gett apart - and makes it a truly wondrous film in its own right - is how it latches tightly to Viviane's perspective, making the audience feel every bit of anguish and injustice she faces over the course of the trial.

More after the jump.

In Israel, marriages and divorces fall under the purview of the "confessional community" - a group of people with like religious beliefs - rather than the state. In the case of the film, this means that in order to receive a divorce, Viviane must stand trial before a Rabbinical court. Without the husband's consent, the wife must be able to prove that a divorce is necessary, whether by providing evidence that the husband is abusive or that their differences are truly irreconcilable. The judges are the only ones who can render a verdict, and must do so within the bounds of keeping the sanctity of marriage intact, as according to scripture.

If it's not already evident, this is a system that greatly favors the will of the husband over the will of the wife (though this is certainly not unique to Israel). The Elkabetzs make this the focus of the film, with Viviane - the film's protagonist - often relegated to the sidelines, forced to watch as the men make their arguments for and against her motion. The film takes place almost entirely within the courtroom, with the few scenes without only moving the action so far as the lobby. The camera stays tightly within those blank, dingy white walls, giving the film a palpable sense of claustrophobia. The Elkabetzs position the courtroom as Vivian's cage, as she is trapped in a situation where the odds are greatly stacked against her.

However, the choice to keep Viviane out of the driver's seat of her own story is not detrimental to the film; it's the entire point. Viviane barely gets to have any say in the deliberations, relying on character witnesses (some of whom are wholly unreliable) and her attorney (who is himself something of a pariah in the court) to argue in her favor. Despite her lack of narrative agency, however, the Elkabetzs shrewdly hint at her independence and personal agency through subtle costume changes, her conservative attire early in the film giving way to more fashionable, "feminine" looks as the trial wears on. It's a bold testament to this woman: regardless of the verdict, she's already embracing the role of an independent woman.

This is as much to the credit of Ronit Elkabetz's performance as anything. Elkabetz is a well-known star in Israel, winning raves for her performances in the instant-classic Late Marriage (2001) and the humane The Band's Visit (2007). She's also played Viviane in two other films, To Take a Wife (2004) and 7 Days (2008), each of which she co-directed and co-wrote with her brother. To say the least, she's very familiar with the role. And in this film, she's a marvel to behold, letting Viviane's exasperation and desperation always simmer below the surface, only erupting when she feels a line has been crossed. She commands the screen, even when she's far from being the focal point; you never forget that she's there. Her performance drives home every one of the film's feminist themes with elegant grace and subtlety.

And though hers is certainly the most intoxicating, the film is filled with other great performances as well. Noy is terrific as Viviane's attorney, hinting at the shadows he's living under without ever launching into exposition about them. Abkarian plays Elisha with just the right amount of obfuscation, making him and his motives in refusing the divorce unknowable. Gabai, too, turns in great work as Elisha's rabbi brother, puffing his chest with an unspoken confidence that the court wouldn't dare rule in Viviane's favor. And Rubi Porat Shival steals her single scene as Rachel, a character witness who testifies for Viviane to hilariously on-point ends.

The shadow of A Separation looms large over Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem, but it does not obscure it completely. Instead, the Elkabetzs have crafted a remarkable film of their own that addresses key feminist issues in their home country through one incredible woman. Ronit Elkabetz has proven her talent as an actress and filmmaker. It's time the rest of the world took notice of her distinct voice. A

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