Gett: The Trial Of Viviane Amsalem
JDIFF strikes again! The last entry wasn’t all that great, but I had latched on early to the following film, that received critical acclaim from all quarters (RT: 100% from 51 reviews!) since its initial release. It wasn’t actually until after the showing that I found out that Gett is the third film in a trilogy about the title character, from co-director/lead actress Ronit Elkabetz, which has generally wowed audiences in Israel and has made a significant impact on the festival circuit elsewhere. A divorce drama with a minimalist approach, Gett aimed to tell a very personal story in very cramped conditions, a stage-play feel for a big screen offering. I caught a screening of Gett at the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival.
Viviane Amsalem (Elkabetz) goes to a rabbinical court in Israel, seeking an end to her dysfunctional marriage with Elisha (Simon Ebkarian). But in Israel, divorce can only be granted with the husband’s consent, and Elisha is far from consenting. Over several torturous years, and with the legal help of Carmel Ben Tovin (Menashe Noy), Vivian confronts ambiguously minded judges, religious intolerance to her plight, and the unyielding nature of her husband.
Last Friday, I reviewed a “film” that could be classified as “minimalist”, in so far as it had a tiny budget and did very little in terms of visuals. But it actually went too far, with the entirety of its visuals being recycled, and the new material added ultimately being of little consequence.
But minimalist can be done right, as Gett shows. You can have a small cast, a very tiny amount of places to shoot – I would say 95% of Gett is filmed in a single bare looking room – and, presumably, a small budget. But with those limitations, you can still make something worth watching. The key’s, as there are in anything in cinema , remain a good script, good visual direction and good performances. And Gett, along with its limited filming locations, cast members and production details, has all of that in spades.
This is part three of three, but there’s no real need to have seen the first two – 2004’s VeLakahta Lekha Isha (To Take A Wife) and 2008’s Shiva (7 Days) – really. Gett sets things up quickly and plainly from its opening moments, presenting Viviane, a torn housewife who wants her union with Elisha to be over. We’ll find out why as things go along, with oblique references to the previous two films, but it’s enough to be going on with. We can, from the opening frames, see a story about a woman in pain, and we don’t need two additional films of back-story to find out why. Gett is, I think, primarily a story about a woman in pain, pain caused by the refusal of a simple wish that she no longer be chained to a man she has long since ceased to love, or to have much of an attachment to at all.
But the primary conflict of the film is not really between Viviane and Elisha. He’s a passive, mostly silent character, who spends most of the film saying nothing at all. The true conflict of the film is between Viviane’s desire for a get (Hebrew for “divorce” apparently) and the religious orthodoxy that governs the system of deciding whether she gets one or not. It would be almost farcical if the reality wasn’t so true: time and again, from opening scenes all the way to the films powerful climax, Viviane finds her way barred by a legal system that openly places the desires of the husband over the desires of a wife, even in something as fundamentally union destroying as a quest to obtain a divorce. The system is personified by the three stern judges who “try” the case, and whose desires and motivations are thinly veiled attempts to get the status quo continuing and a bothersome woman back where she belongs. Gett is about Viviane’s emotional turmoil, a turmoil caused less by a cold silent husband, and more by a legal system that places her on a lower standing than the man she is trying to escape.
The resulting trial is about Viviane, and casts a harsh spotlight on an Israeli society – at least in the 1990’s, as depicted here – a society that judges her harshly for even trying to get a divorce, and judges her even more strongly for resisting the many efforts to get her to stop. A cavalcade of witnesses are brought in to the tiny courtroom to try and get the matter settled, most of them framing their viewpoints through a lens of resisting any sundering of marriage, and of treating Viviane’s issue, at best, with a sort of detached bemusement in their eyes. Only a small number of people seem to understand the kind of pressure Viviane is under, supporting her cause, and Gett makes clear that the seeking of a divorce is an act that puts every aspect of your life, as seen through the eyes of your family, friends and neighbours, under an unrelenting spotlight. But the end result, for the audience anyway, is to paint a picture of a society acting in a warped and dangerous fashion, sexist in its thinking and unjust in its actions.
Viviane is largely silent in the prosecution of her cause, and not by choice. Her thoughts on the matter are almost immaterial. If it wasn’t for the fact that this is how the courts actually seem to work in Israel, I’d almost call it far-fetched. But the greatness in Gett is in how, aside from the odd outburst and interruption, Viviane grows as a character within our eyes. She starts off as a pleading supplicant. Over time, she transforms into something else, losing the more modest, drab clothing and sorrowful demeanour, later dressed more provocatively (by Jewish standards anyway), more scathing in her look, actions and voice, becoming more and more defiant even as she continues to be discounted as a player with agency in this fight.
The pressure builds and builds, and with very little material – Viviane really doesn’t get to talk all that much, but when she does, every word has a power – a well-crafted character takes shape, one that carries the audiences full sympathies. She’s a strong female character trying to make the very best of a situation and a system that is denying her so much, but it is in the way that she carries herself – with grace, and then defiance later – that really makes her stand out to me. Other women in Gett are different: more brash or more subservient. Viviane is in the middle, but even she can’t stop the dam from bursting eventually, and her tear filled explosion of pain in the film’s final act is the pivotal moment when she becomes one of the year’s best female characters, someone who is restrained for as long as she can, but still has a realistic and believable breaking point.
On the other side of the courtroom is Elisha. Throughout the vast majority of Gett, he remains an infuriating enigma, a man who stubbornly refuses to engage the matter at hand at all. Refusing to attend the court, speaking monosyllabically when he does, and utterly unwilling to contemplate the granting of a divorce to his suffering wife. His silence is a frustration because we are longing to discover why: why hold on to her when she so clearly cannot stand him anymore? Why perpetrate a sham of a marriage, where even when Viviane is ordered back into his home he ignores her? Is it religious conviction? Is it genuine love that he can’t bring himself to emote properly? Can he not bear the thought of losing face in his wider community? Or it is a terrible malevolence, a revenge trip that would make him among the most awful of people? Elisha keeps us guessing for most of Gett, his continuing refusal to bend in any way almost reaching comical levels by the time the film is nearing its end. I wouldn’t say Elisha is a really great character, but that guessing game at least keeps the audience engaged by him. The final revelation is complex and somewhat understandable, given what we know about Elisha, and is worth waiting for.
Gett balances the marriage drama with the other courtroom players. The opposing lawyers have a constant, and frequently ill-natured, back-and-forth, with Elisha’s advocate an sneering and enraging sort, willing to slime Viviane even as he takes full advantage of a manufactured aura of quaintness (one cannot help but think of Nancy Crozier in The Good Wife) and who pokes at open wounds with a barely reserved glee. On the other side is Tovin, one of the most decent men in the courtroom it seems, and the only one who seems to actually understand the injustice that is being perpetrated, treating the justices with a contempt he does not really try all that hard to conceal (I suppose he’s Will Gardner from The Good Wife then). But he too has his secrets, that make him more well-rounded than the angry paragon we are initially presented with.
All throughout is the interaction with the judges, character who swing between deadly serious patriarch types to comic relief, almost nameless but sort of captivating at the same turn, who seem happy to indulge Elisha in his constant delaying, and squirm when caught trying to undermine their own promises. Their roles are odd ones, mere referee’s for the unfolding drama, as no matter what threats they levy at Elisha, they cannot actually force him to grant his wife a divorce. They become symbols then, of a religious legal system entirely at ease with its own lack of potency in the issues of marriage disputes, unable to keep any sort of control over the people in their courtroom.
Gett is a strange one in terms of pacing and drive. Over and over again we are treated to the same scene, of Viviane and her lawyer asking the court to treat an absent husband more harshly, and again and again we are treated to a caption of “X Months Later”, the drama eventually stretching to years of courtroom episodes, of delays and missing figures of importance. It would be easy for the viewer to become fed-up by all of that, of getting impatient for something to actually happen, with some of the people I watched Gett with actually laughing when the caption kept coming up and up.
But, in a very weird way, this constant stringing out of the issue actually makes Gett more compelling: Always when we return to Viviane, months after her last date in court, we join her in the mounting frustration, the sense of injustice and the anger that her quest is taking so long to reach any kind of end point, yay or nay. In that, the Elkabetz siblings behind the camera have managed to forge a bond between audience and subject that is positively rare to see, and in a very unexpected manner. We end up lining up behind Viviane not just because we think that any woman who wants a divorce should be able to get one, but because the manner in which she is denied is so abhorrent to progressive society.
All that being said, Gett also succeeds when it gets down to the nitty gritty, in its second act most of all. There, a wider cast of characters – brothers, sisters, neighbours, friends, lawyers and others – all get their time in front of the camera, to testify about the marriage being discussed, and about Viviane and Elisha generally. There are some stand-out people who appear only briefly, like Viviane’s annoyed sister-in-law, who has the titular character in peals of laughter after her bitter and sarcastic rant at the court, or the husband and wife pair from a few doors down, the kind of couple the Israeli legal system wants to exist, with a subservient wife kowtowing to an overbearing husbands on nearly all matters, so far removed from the person Viviane wants to be that the contrast couldn’t be more striking.
Gett moves along, between moments of utmost serious and unexpected interludes of effective comedy, when the ludicrous nature of the entire affair overflows in deadpan asides and snarky rejoinders. But it can never fully escape the darkness at the core, and Gett keeps its audience on tenterhooks right up to its conclusion. Can Elisha ever be swayed? Will Viviane get the freedom that she craves? Gett kept me entertained and engaged with these questions, with its finale a suitable ending in a drawn out legal saga of years. Lives and an entire nation are the judged here, not just a disintegrating marriage.
As stated, Ronit Alkabetz sort of owns this movie, and all in spite of her lack of words. She certainly has no lack of time though, the film pivoting around her character, usually seated quietly in a chair to the right of all the action, observing, calculating and occasionally throwing in a pithy comment or plea. Alkabetz goes through the ringer here, showcasing varying degrees of anger, sorrow, frustration and morbidity throughout the two hours, through subtle shifts in tone and outright demonstrations of fury. I suppose it is the quieter moments that are more impressive: her Viviane says so much without saying nothing at all with just a withering look, a hand to her mouth, or (see below) the way she shows off her feet.
Simon Ebkarian is similar in that he is getting little words to speak, albeit for very different reasons. His Elisha is a riddle of a character, flat-faced, regretful and revealing precious little whenever he has any kind of focus on him. But that doesn’t make his performance bad in any way, quite the opposite: Ebkarian gives Elisha everything that he needs to have so that the audience really see’s him the way the directors want you to, as this enigmatic figure whose drive and purpose seem so alien to us, but have a deep-seeded justification to them in the end.
Of the supporting players, it’s Noy who probably makes the biggest impression, a firebrand of a lawyer whose deeper feelings for his client complicate matters in the latter stages of the case, his evasion of the subject matched by the petty point scoring of Sasson Gabai on the opposite side. The numerous judges are also making an impression – Rami Danon, Ze’ev Revach and Eli Gorstein I think – providing the stern looks and reapproving admonitions from the bench.
The cast all of their roles to play in the extremely limited surroundings, Gett at times looking more like a stage play than a film. The vast, vast majority of the running time takes place in a rather dingy looking white walled courtroom, lacking unblinded windows or any distinguishing marks. The atmosphere thus created is deliberately claustrophobic, and one cannot help but consider the setting to be akin to a jail cell for its title character. There might not be more than 10 or so camera angles used in this room, all of the matching up to someone’s viewpoint, giving Gett a first person feel at times and the Elkabetz siblings use them all glowingly.
The surroundings are so limiting that clever cinematography is a wasted venture: instead, static camera shots are used at all times save for very briefly at the end, letting the actors and their body movements do all of the work. And in that everything is focused directly at faces: the simple surrounds, the single colour clothing, it all forms a somewhat bland picture, but does make the audience pay greater attention to what is being said and how people are saying it, a lingering portrait shot of Viviane at the start of the final act evoking thoughts of a similar shot from Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave, where the focus is meant to show the tiny little details – the tremors, the ticks, the barely hidden signs of emotions – that this character is thinking of and feeling.
Only when Viviane starts to chaff under the expectations of how she should look does the visual side of things start to have more colour, and even then in a very limited sense. Late on, Viviane spends a moment looking out a window at the outside world in an antechamber of some kind, and the sight of sunlight, cars and people out walking seems strange and almost absurd to the audience, a timely reminder that despite all of the drama inside the courtroom, with its garish white almost making you strain your eyes, there is still life outside. The world has kept turning.
The Elkabetz’ script doesn’t seem to suffer at all from the travails of translation into English, and provides a really good shining point for the film as a whole. This is a film of emotional declarations made intermittently with standard courtroom dramas: hopes, fears, dreams and nightmares are all brought out in a succession of interrogations, crosses and breakdowns. Well rehearsed testimony is torn to pieces by either side, and the case takes on the image of a train wreck in motion, so far from the point of whether Viviane deserves a divorce that one wonders what the point of the proceedings is. The greater moments are those left aside for Viviane to string more than a few sentences together, as she enunciates her opinion that her husband hates her, and will not be satisfied until she is on knees pleading for a divorce. But others have plenty to work with it as well, stand out moments including the constantly barbed dialogue between the two opposing lawyers, the judges stern lectures on the nature of marriage and family, or even the many unexpected but effective moments of humour.
Some brief spoiler discussion follows.
-That moment when the judge tells his assistant to get Viviane some water, she refuses, and then she gets water anyway, was so simple yet so artfully done. Here is a woman who has such little control over her own life that she cannot even decline a simple offer like this without being completely ignored.
-That view of the outside comes at a very fateful moment in the trial, as things reach a head and a final resolution appears possible. I’m not lying when I say that seeing it was jarring to me, having been so successfully sucked into the narrative within the cramped closed windowed space of the courthouse. It seemed unreal, to be reminded that all parties would walk away into the sunshine, and that life would go on just as it always had. Is there some higher point about the nature of cinematic storytelling and the commitment of an audience being made there?
-Viviane breaks down when her husband comes the closest he has yet to granting her a divorce only to change his mind at almost the last possible moment, and it’s probably the film’s most searing scene: the sight of Viviane letting loose, the years of delays coming out in a torrid flow of screaming and pleas for her freedom to be granted, animal-like in their viciousness. She isn’t just saying it to her husband, but to the world at large, and gives a truth to her earlier words that Elisha would not be satisfied until she was in this current state.
–Gett has a somewhat odd recurring look at Viviane’s feet throughout the trial, her change in footwear part of her general change in mood, the greater skin being show almost looking like a challenge to such an old-fashioned conventional court. It even dominates the final shots. Are we to see Viviane’s feet as a crucial part of the narrative? Are we to imagine them chained to her husband perhaps, but finally freed at the end?
-It was obvious, or maybe predictable, that Viviane’s advocate would be revealed to have deeper feelings for his client than he should have, despite all of his protestations to the contrary. It’s an awkward but interesting scene, severely clouding all that we think we know about this advocate up to then, as he protests far too loudly under the accusation. The plot point gets no resolution, which is perhaps as it should be, given the final deal between Viviane and Elisha.
-That final reveal, that Elisha is so wrapped up in his faith and the view of marriage that comes from it, that he needs a promise that Viviane will take up with no other men after him, was a fitting end to the larger mystery of his continuing refusal. It is at once a grand reason for refusing the divorce, and also extremely petty: but, for a man so dedicated to the finer points of his religion, and unwilling to bend in the face of the request from his wife, it did just all come together in my eyes.
-I have to say, aside from the lopsided nature of things that leaves men with far more power than women, the proceedings of a divorce in a Jewish court seem crazy to me. It isn’t just that a man must give his consent a divorce, but he has to actually hand the document over to the women, one part in an overly-elaborate and kooky ritual, that had more of a comical than solemn effect on myself and the audience I saw the film with.
-The film does leave you hanging on the final resolution, the last shots seeing Viviane enter the courtroom to try and receive her “gett” again. It’s possible that Elisha really is the monster he is sometimes painted as, and will once again refuse. But I don’t personally think so. I think the deep-seeded concern he had about his wife’s fidelity – which he considers still as something to be promised to him, divorce or no divorce – being sorted, he will finally be able to let her go. I hope so anyway. Viviane is a winner I suppose, but really everyone is a victor, finally escaping to that briefly glimpsed outside world.
Gett is a great little film, the kind of minimalist production that actually does a great service to the term. It has some really wonderfully created personalities to weave its narrative around, and through the right application of montage, humour, decent scriptwork and good performances, it manages to flip what could be a drab, frustrating story into something that the audience just can’t tear its eyes away from. A divorce court that turns into a larger trial of an innocent and unjustly denied woman, Gett showcases the problems and hypocrisies of marriage law in Israel, in its depiction of a scenario that is as real as they come.
And so we can say that Gett is smart and engaging as well as entertaining, and all from a set of ingredients that didn’t really seem like they could come together in that way if you looked at them from a distance. The Kafkaesque bureaucratic chaos that it exhibits is the true stuff of nightmares, and makes you truly appreciative you don’t have to live under such a system. And this vision is brought before us with care and panache, by a sibling team that make sure that every shot and cut does what it is required to do, in terms of putting out a message or telling us something about the principals in the frame. This is certainly one to check out if you should get the chance, and was certainly one of the better offerings at this year’s JDIFF. Fully recommended.
(All images are copyright of Music Box Films).