One can imagine this Israeli film being presented as a play, confined to a single courtroom setting as it is. But “Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem” uses the feeling of claustrophobia to its advantage, creating a world of confinement that mirrors that the title character has long endured. This third installment of a trilogy that began with “To Take a Wife” (2004) and continued with “Shiva (The Seven Days)” is a powerful culmination to sibling filmmakers Ronit and Shlomi Elkabetz’s study of a disastrous marriage in the Jewish state, the misery of which is compounded by Israeli law that leaves spouses—especially wives—captives to religious law.
In a fashion that’s comparable to Richard Linklater’s “Before” trilogy, the Elkabetz’s films follow a couple over time—but from a failed marriage through the divorce proceedings. The first film was set in 1979, and portrayed Viviane (Ronit Elkabetz) and Elisha (Simon Abkarian) Amsalem trapped in a loveless twenty-year marriage. The second returned to them some twelve years later, when they’d separated but came together for the shiva for Viviane’s recently-deceased brother. More diffuse than the first film, it offered opportunities for digressions involving numerous other family members.
In this third entry the filmmakers return to a tight focus on Viviane and Elisha as it follows the trial for divorce that she has initiated. Under Israeli law all divorce cases are handled before rabbinical tribunals rather than secular courts, and—if agreed to by both parties—result in a gett, a document of divorce that must be handed by one party to the other before the judges, with certain formal declarations spoken during the ceremony. One party, however, can delay the progress interminably, or simply refuse to agree to a divorce.
That’s what happens in the Amsalem case, and Elisha, a strictly Orthodox man, engages in dilatory tactics—often simply refusing to appear—and when forced to come to court declines to assent. The judges claim to be powerless to force him to accede, and generally take his side, ordering Viviane again and again to return home and try to make the marriage work. Over the course of no less than five years a couple of tribunals hold meeting after meeting, probing husband and wife over the causes that have led her to seek a divorce and him to be so recalcitrant in going through with the process. They also bring in witnesses—relatives and family members—to give evidence about the couple, testimony that reveals Viviane’s often volatile insistence on greater freedom that Elisha would allow and his quiet but stern responses based on the idea that the man is master of the household and the wife should submit to his will. The revelations that gradually emerge from the words of the Amsalems and their respective advocates—secular lawyer Carmel Ben Tavin (Menashe Noy) for Viviane and Elisha’s older brother Shimon (Sasson Gabay) on his sibling’s behalf—are extraordinarily telling, although they tease out the truth only gradually, as all the parties come with agendas and preconceived notions of their own, and are drawn to say things they might not wish to only under intense questioning.
“Gett” is divided chronologically into episodes that span the five-year divorce proceedings, and the only setting aside from the cramped courtroom itself, with the tribunal situated on a raised dais and the parties and their lawyers seated at simple tables in front of the judges, is the waiting room in which everyone sits in expectation of being summoned. One might expect this to be visually dull, but the directors and cinematographer Jeanne Lapoirie hold the viewer’s interest for nearly two hours with their clever choice of perspectives and savvy editing decisions by Joelle Alexis.
But much of the power of the film derives from the four lead performances, with the remarkable Elkabetz standing out as the “chained woman” Viviane, trapped in a limbo between marriage and freedom that requires her to live a perfectly “honorable” life even though she hasn’t been with her husband for years. (It’s certainly true that “Gett” is not exactly even-handed, portraying her predicament with far greater sympathy than Elisha’s; but the fact is that far more women than men find themselves in the position of being refused divorces by their spouses, and suffer more socially from their “in-between” status as well.) But while the other performances—including Abkarian’s—may not match her level of intensity, it’s difficult not to be amused—with perhaps a note of horror—at the tactics employed by Gabay’s Shimon, or moved by the testimony given by the Amsalems’ rigid neighbor Simon (Ze’ev Revach) and his obviously long-suffering wife.
One doesn’t need to have seen the two previous films in the trilogy for “Gett” to provide a searing view of the Israeli system of divorce, and to make one feel deeply for a modern woman trapped in its religious intricacies. But after seeing it you may well wish to go back and watch the earlier episodes in the Amsalem saga.