Lawrence Toppman

Unsettling ‘Gett’ examines divorce, Israeli style

Viviane (Ronit Elkabetz) must endure a Kafkaesque process to get a divorce.
Viviane (Ronit Elkabetz) must endure a Kafkaesque process to get a divorce. STUDIO CANAL

Three thoughts after watching the painfully fascinating “Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem”:

1) Everyone marrying an orthodox Jew in Israel needs to see it. There would still be marriages, but not as many.

2) Had Franz Kafka lived into his 70s and survived World War II, he’d probably have emigrated to Israel and written about it first.

3) The title is terribly apt: not just for its reference to Kafka’s masterpiece about a futile encounter with bureaucracy, not even because the title character goes through psychological trials and tribulations, but because she’s being judged for her fitness to end a marriage. If the United States is the land of no-fault divorces, Israel comes off here as the land of “no fault, no divorce.”

Three rabbinical judges wonder why Viviane (Ronit Elkabetz) should want to leave Elisha (Simon Abkarian). He doesn’t beat her or their children. He makes enough money. He doesn’t cheat on her with other women. So they no longer love each other. So what?

Elisha must consent to the divorce for it to be granted, no matter how long she lives away from him. He promises compliance, then changes his mind at the last minute. He refuses to come to hearings or supply witnesses. And the male judges shrug, like fond uncles confronted by a naughty nephew: If Elisha won’t be reasonable, what can they do?

Elkabetz, who wrote and directed the film with brother Shlomi, lets us understand Elisha: His pride has been crushed by the request, and he petulantly uses power over Viviane to punish her. His brother, who’s also a rabbi (Sasson Gabai), represents Elisha as if sexism were common sense. Let these crazy women make decisions, and the world as we know it will come to an end!

Meanwhile, Viviane’s attorney (Menashe Noy) struggles to free her from legal coils over five years’ worth of hearings and testimony. If the film becomes repetitive at times, we get a full sense of Viviane’s infuriating predicament.

The Elkabetz siblings have made three movies, starting with “To Take a Wife” in 2004. The subject of marriage must mean a lot to them: “Wife” was about a woman trying to raise three children, work from home and observe strict Moroccan-Jewish traditions in Israel. Meanwhile, her brothers and husband wanted her to stay married and abandon the idea of being loved. (And Ronit Elkabetz and Simon Abkarian played a couple named Viviane and Eliahou. Hmmm...)

Because the Israeli film community is small, moviemakers tend to collaborate often. For example, Gabai and Ronit Elkabetz starred in the celebrated 2007 film “The Band’s Visit,” about an Egyptian police band giving a concert in Israel.

So they work together seamlessly in an ensemble of actors who know just how to play off each other. The result is smooth, subtle and continually disturbing.

Toppman: 704-358-5232


‘Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem’

This drama, filmed entirely in and around a courtroom, deals with an Israeli woman’s five-year attempt to get a divorce from a rabbinical court.

A- STARS: Ronit Elkabetz, Menasha Noy, Simon Abkarian, Sasson Gabai.

WRITERS-DIRECTORS: Ronit Elkabetz, Shlomi Elkabetz.

RUNNING TIME: 116 minutes.

RATING: Unrated (occasional harsh language).

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