Movie review: Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem is really a trial of Israel's rabbinical courts | Arts
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Friday, March 13, 2015

Movie review: Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem is really a trial of Israel's rabbinical courts

Posted by on Fri, Mar 13, 2015 at 12:03 PM

click to enlarge Viviane Ansalem's attempt to escape a bad marriage is thwarted by Israel's rabbinical courts in Gett. - COURTESY OF MUSIC BOX FILMS
  • courtesy of Music Box Films
  • Viviane Ansalem's attempt to escape a bad marriage is thwarted by Israel's rabbinical courts in Gett.
Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem
★★★★
Now playing


Under contemporary Israeli law, both marriage and divorce are controlled by rabbinical courts. There is no tradition of civil law when it comes to getting hitched or unhitched. A woman can only be divorced if she is officially presented with a religious document—called a "gett," or "get"—by her husband. If the husband refuses: no divorce.

This traditional patriarchal system comes under heavy fire in the Israeli film Gett: the Trial of Viviane Amsalem, which plays out like the damnedest courtroom drama you've ever seen. The film was Israel's official entry for Best Foreign Language Film at this year's Academy Awards, though it was not ultimately nominated.

Ronit Elkabetz plays Viviane Amsalem, who reached the end of her rope many years ago and is desperate to end her miserable marriage to her cruel husband, Elisha (Simon Abkarian.) Gett is the third film in a trilogy by Elkabetz and her brother, Shlomi Elkabetz, on the unhappy union of these two characters.

Gett takes place almost entirely within a single room, the spartan administrative offices of the rabbinical court. From Viviane’s first day in those offices, the trial stretches out for years as the husband maliciously games the system to keep his wife shackled. Individual scenes are broken up by onscreen indicators of the insane religious-bureaucratic odyssey—"Three Weeks Later," "Six Months Later "—until an incredible five years have passed.

In the interim, we hear from a procession of witnesses, legal counsel, relatives and neighbors that testify on the marriage. As the men hold forth—the judges and lawyers are all men—debates on religion, law and society crest and crash. Meanwhile, Viviane sits helplessly, spiraling into despair and, on occasion, giddy rage. When one exchange devolves into absurdity, she breaks down into hysterical laughter. How long must she wait for the simple right to walk away from a bad marriage? (Note that some observers have objected to the film's depiction of the Israeli court system.)

There are genuinely funny moments in the witness testimony, but mostly, the film boils along with Viviane. The camera work is fascinating. Each character (or grouping of characters) is deliberately framed from the point of view of another character. The tangles of this dilemma go beyond the legal and the domestic, into realms of society, psychology and religion. For many long sequences, the frame is filled just by Viviane's face, in all its complex humanity.

It's marvelous storytelling, and the decision to confine the action in a single courtroom is bold and effective. The ending is the film's least successful element—the resolution we're so thirsty for stutters and fades into frustrating ambiguity. But this is a dense, disciplined piece of work. It's social critique, character study, feminist manifesto and legal drama. It's unlike anything else you'll see at the movies, and in the Triangle, it's playing only at the Colony in Raleigh.

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