June 19, 2019

‘Gett’ illustrates divorce inequality — a hot-button topic in Israel

You may not know the name yet, but if you follow Israeli movies, the face is unforgettable. The throaty Sephardic voice, the black hair, burning eyes and bone structure to die for: Ronit Elkabetz is built for melodrama before she opens her preternaturally mobile mouth. With her lush sensuality, the actress has played her share of sexpots and slatterns. But over the years, her range has grown wider and deeper: In “Late Marriage (2001) and “The Band’s Visit (2007), two of the finest movies to come out of Israel’s thriving national cinema, Elkabetz nimbly combines comic verve with a lyrical feel for grief and disappointment. And in France, where Elkabetz lives when she’s not in Israel with her husband of four years, she’s about to play the French prime minister in a futuristic sci-fi series on television. Now, with her film “Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem” having been Israel’s Oscar submission this year for best foreign film — though it did not make the final list — she’s a writer-director to reckon with, too.

Onscreen, Elkabetz carries herself with the stately, look-at-me pride of a 1940s Hollywood diva. Stepping up gamely for an interview in a Beverly Hills hotel last October, however, she wilted over mint tea. Elkabetz was exhausted from a whistle-stop tour of some of the 30 countries that have picked up the courtroom drama “Gett,” the latest in a trilogy that she wrote and directed with her younger brother, Shlomi. As Viviane, an Israeli woman trying to obtain a divorce from her Orthodox husband, Elkabetz is stubborn, majestic and seething with barely suppressed rage.

“Gett” is not the first film to take on the gender inequities of divorce in a country that is largely secular, yet without institutional arrangements for civil marriage or divorce. To the best of my knowledge, however, it is the first to set the cat among the rabbinical pigeons by addressing the breakdown of a union in which, for one partner, at least, all affection is gone. Viviane’s calmly recalcitrant husband (Simon Abkarian) doesn’t beat or sexually coerce her: She simply no longer loves him. To the panel of cranky rabbis who sit in judgment over her petition, that is insufficient grounds for annulment, and they keep sending the couple away to reconcile. 

Even without its incendiary topicality (the movie played to enthusiastic crowds at last year’s Jerusalem Film Festival, where it won best feature) “Gett” is a demanding movie whose minimalist form, unfolding in a sparsely furnished courtroom, forces our attention on the futile process that stymies Viviane’s efforts to gain her independence. “We didn’t want to show any exteriors,” Elkabetz said in halting but precise English, “because there is no home. The marriage is finished.”  

Instead we see Viviane and her lawyer returning to the courtroom again and again, with and without her stubbornly uncooperative spouse. Amid increasingly heated exchanges between the plaintiff, her frustrated attorney and the implacable (if sometimes flustered) judges, her husband looks on impassively, secure in the knowledge that he has time and a rigid interpretation of Jewish law on his side. The filmmakers want us to experience Viviane’s frustration and rising anger as she’s sent back again to create shalom bayit (domestic peace). Space is claustrophobically confined as befits a closed court; months pass with Bressonian slowness. “The judges want to gain time,” Elkabetz explained.

The director bristles at the suggestion that audiences may need to shift gears to adjust to the movie’s measured pace. “Maybe you had jetlag too when you saw it,” she counters slyly. And in its austere way, “Gett” is a wonderfully handsome movie with a palette of dramatically monochromatic browns and greys, with occasional bursts into significant color as the action approaches crisis. “We wanted very much to shoot in black-and-white,” Elkabetz said. “But everyone told us, forget it. No one will believe that this is happening today.” 

To highlight the lack of objectivity in the process, there’s no omniscient narrator; the point of view segues between characters as they slog through the archaic proceedings. “We never took a master shot from our point of view,” Elkabetz said. “It’s always from the point of view of the other.” But the movie’s tonal shifts belong to Viviane. She may be a victim, but she’s no shrinking violet. She’s a screamer with cause, and “Gett” speaks on her behalf. In a nod to Israel’s popular ethnic comedy, character witnesses bring hilarious relief from all the pent-up passion. “I’m a tragedienne,” Elkabetz said, “and I know very well that in the middle of tragedy, there is comedy. It’s a fine line.”

Taken together, the trilogy, which Elkabetz sums up as “a woman in search of her freedom,” is loosely based on the family experiences she shared with her brother growing up in a traditional North African family in Beersheba and Haifa. “The films were inspired by my mother’s life,” Elkabetz said. “They’re not autobiographical. We didn’t use specific detail. But they’re very personal, and very good therapy for both of us.” Of Shlomi, a slim, handsome film professor and filmmaker who’s eight years younger and her constant companion on the tour, she says, “We are so good together. We talk a lot, a lot before we start production. While shooting we don’t talk at all.” 

If the first two films in the trilogy opened in Israel to decent notices, “Gett” has been a sensation. When it opened there commercially last September, the movie played to packed houses and stepped up an already furious public debate in a country where the divide between religious and secular runs a close second to the conflict with the Palestinians in Israel’s noisy culture wars. Plaudits flowed, Elkabetz says, from the media and from government sources, among them former Justice Minister Tzipi Livni. “We heard from foundations advocating against sexual violence, for women in danger, as well as women who have been denied divorce. We even heard from women in high-tech. It was like bulimia, everyone wanted to vomit about it.” 

Elkabetz received supportive letters from men as well as women. As for the Orthodox: “They don’t go to the cinema,” Elkabetz said, shrugging. “But one of their male rabbis urged his community to see it, while a woman rabbi said, ‘Don’t go.’ ”

“Maybe,” she added, “ ‘Gett’ will be the first film in Israel to change reality.” At the end of the movie, having agreed to a shocking bargain driven by her implacable spouse, Viviane drifts over to a window and looks out onto a sunlit patch of a world busy with people going about their business.

Will there be a sequel? “Viviane bought her freedom,” Elkabetz said. “Maybe there will be a new life.” She smiles enigmatically. “Maybe.”

“Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem” opens in Los Angeles Feb. 13.