Monday, February 09, 2015

The Golden Globe Nominated Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem

There is one area where Israel should find common ground with its radical neighbors: its rabbinical system of divorce that applies to all, regardless of faith or lack thereof, and invariably favors men. Of course, women’s rights are assiduously protected in other spheres of life, so that compatibility extends only so far. Nevertheless, for an emotionally neglected wife desperate to move on with her life, divorce proceedings are unbearably unjust, absurd, and protracted in Ronit & Schlomi Elkabetz’s Golden Globe nominated Gett: the Trial of Viviane Amsalem (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Amsalem has not lived with her husband Elisha for years. All that time, she has stayed with her grown siblings, dutifully sending meals home to Elisha and their children every night. She has never been unfaithful or in any way brought shame on the family—aside from the scandal of their separation. She simply had enough of his passive aggressive cruelty and the isolation imposed by his anti-social Puritanism.

In an American court, this would be an open and shut case, especially when her husband contemptuously disregards notices to appear in court. Despite his recalcitrant behavior, the law remains on his side. As long as he continues to deny her long-sought after divorce (or gett), nobody can force him to change his mind. Viviane Amsalem’s decidedly unreligious attorney Carmel Ben Tovim will continue to file objections and call witnesses, but the institutional fix is in. Yet, like some sort of Kafkaesque Sisyphus, she continues to press a case that will be observed in months and eventually years.

Gett paints a traumatizing portrait of divorce, but unlike L.A. Law or American exposes like Divorce Corp, the Elkabetz sibling filmmakers never accuse the attorneys of exploiting the proceedings for financial gain. Frankly, everyone in this film is abjectly miserable, but the three-judge panel refuses impose a sensible gett, due their overriding doctrinal concerns.

Ronit Elkabetz (so seductively earthy in the Oscar disqualified The Band’s Visit) is quite remarkable as Ms. Amsalem. She viscerally conveys a sense of her bitter exhaustion, but can still shock us with eruptions of repressed emotion, manifesting as rage or inappropriate laughter. Simon Abkarian plays Mr. Amsalem with rigid discipline, coming off cold, clammy, and callous. Yet, he adroitly reveals aspects of the husband “defendant” that explain and somewhat humanize his actions to some extent, but not at the expense of viewer sympathy for his embattled wife.

In terms of themes, tone, and intensity, Gett most closely compares to Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation, but it probably does the Iranian filmmaker no favors to liken his film with an Israeli work. Regardless, they are both seamlessly exhausting viewing experiences. Arguably, it is the mark of a healthy society that can forthrightly address its faults through cultural and artistic statements. Frankly, you will not see Arab cinema tackle gender inequity so candidly. Of course they also have even more fundamental issues than biased divorce law to contend with, like honor killings and female genital mutilation. No doubt that is slim comfort to the Viviane Amsalems, but worth noting nonetheless. Recommended for the sheer power of its performances and the Elkabetzes’ almost unbearably intimate dramatic focus, Gett: the Trial of Viviane Amsalem opens this Friday (2/13) in New York, at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema.