“Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem”

If you demand physical movement in your movies,this rabbinical court drama is not for you. If you find amusement in farce and affirmation in how sad women’s lot is in much of the world see “Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem”. You will leave the theater frustrated,but enlightened.

In traditional Jewish law, a woman can not initiate a divorce. A “gett” is a divorce  document ( a cutting of the scroll) ,and it can only be given by the husband and processed by a court of rabbis.  For Orthodox Jews in Israel, there are no civil divorces ,or for that matter, civil marriages. This fact was new to me,but the fact that women are controlled by men in much of the world was not.

Headshots and confined rooms in colorless frames draw our attention to the dialogue and the silences. We learn that a woman of 45,married for twenty years and separated for three seeks a divorce. She is the mother of four grown children,and she supports herself as a hairdresser. Her husband refuses her divorce request,and her attorney attempts to help gain her one. Her freedom is all consuming, and she is patient ~ unnervingly so.

There is no adultery or physical violence,yet Viviane’s unhappiness is visceral. Her simple statements “He hates me” and “I want my divorce” and “Give me my freedom” highlight a complex masking of pain.We learn an interesting fact. Viviane’s mother-in-law has lived with Elisha and her for the twenty years they have been married. Her “I’m not going back” will remind literary types of Kate Chopin’s “The Awakening”.

Ronit Elkabetz is the co-writer,co-director and the star,Viviane. Her sister Shlomi co-wrote and co-directed.They have a message to send the world:Many women are not in control of their lives. Viviane’s visage will stay with you as she subtilely  shows her suffering and her passion and her disdain. She is never resigned to her husband’s “no”. Elisha,her husband, will not speak to her. He stalls and ignores summons after summons. There can be no hearing without him,and he knows he has the upper hand. He states that he will not come to court until  Viviane comes home.

The judge played by Eli Gornstein firmly reiterates that he must have grounds. The witnesses bring humor and the premise that truth is in the telling. Viviane’s oldest brother champions her husband,”when he sings,the birds stop and listen”. “Women need boundaries.” He then proudly states that his sister has raised their children “to the glory of Israel.”Viviane’s sister-in-law is called next to bear witness. She hysterically states that she would like to share Viviane’s fate even though ” a divorced woman in Israel eats shit.” Viviane can not control her giggles at this vitriolic display of female bonding.

Five years pass and we still only see them at the table. Besides witnesses being called and family members attesting and judges dismissing themselves, humiliation and honor get further confused. There are rumors at the synagogue! Interrogations and questions reveal a little of everyone’s life. Respect is bandied about,but hard won. In the end,Viviane walks the straight and narrow still,and we ask ourselves why.

There are rules to be followed and bargains to be made in this tightly-honed art piece. From bare legs and painted toes to forgotten skull caps,power bristles. The attorney Carmel (Menashe Noy) does his best as his client seethes in silence and his own honor is put to question.”She does not love or respect you. Grant her a divorce and free yourself,too.”

I must remark that I liked the symbolic divorce ritual shown. I found it moving and compelling. This,too, was new to me and another example of how fine film can bring the foreign near. I longed for this untying of the knot,far superior to our hand-delivered court summons or decree. The husband places the gett,or divorce papers in his hands and with his soon to be ex’s arms parallel to the floor, he drops the paper into her open palms. He recites “you are hereby permitted to be with any man”. The problem with this admittedly dictatorial decree is that Elisha has made Viviane promise celibacy prior to his giving permission! “No one after you.” The shutting door opens a host of questions for me. Highly recommended for the serious film-goer. It will become a classic. Please add your commentary on the film. There is so much that I left out.