Regular readers may recall my late 2014 review of Volker Schlöndorff’s Diplomacy. As stagy as that film was, however, it’s been outdone by Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem (opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, Feb. 27). How stagy is Gett? So stagy it could just as accurately be entitled Two Rooms and a Hallway – but don’t let that put you off.
Viviane (the magnificent Ronit Elkabetz, carrying herself with the dignified aplomb of an Eleanor Bron or Irene Papas) is an Israeli woman seeking a divorce from her deeply religious husband Elisha (Casino Royale’s Simon Abkarian). Unfortunately for her, there’s no such thing as civil marriage or divorce in Israel, and their separation must be approved and legalized by a rabbinical court.
Though Iranian law is still heavily weighted in favor of men, even the Islamic Republic has civil divorce courts. Not so Israel, however, where men still hold all the cards. In Viviane’s case – and despite copious evidence of incompatibility with hubby – proceedings quickly grind to a halt when Elisha stubbornly refuses to grant her her freedom.
While acknowledging that their relationship is on the rocks, Elisha simply can’t let her go – and the three-rabbi judicatory body can’t (or won’t) overrule his objections. Instead, they order the couple to reconcile, and despite Viviane’s long-term estrangement – she has lived with relatives for years, though she’s continued to make meals for Elisha and their children – compel her to move back in with him.
Unsurprisingly, things don’t work out, and the proceedings drag on for the next five years (in motion picture time, two hours). Sometimes Elisha comes to court, sometimes he refuses, but every time the answer is the same: no, Viviane cannot leave him – at least, not without first accepting some onerous conditions. By film’s end, there’s a measure of satisfaction for both husband and wife, but one can’t help but feel that – once again – the man comes out on top.
For those who enjoy a good courtroom drama, Gett is without a doubt amongst the best of recent vintage. Over the course of its one hundred and sixteen minutes, we see little more than the unhappy couple and their respective counsellors (for Viviane, the stubbornly secular Carmel; for Elisha, the devout Rabbi Shimon) and the panel of three (sometimes two) rabbis, all cloistered within the limited confines of the aforementioned two rooms and a hallway. Amazingly, the film never gets boring.
All such courtroom dramas (I’m looking at you, Twelve Angry Men) feature at least one magnificent soliloquy, and Gett is no exception. This time, though, it’s neither a lawyer nor a juror who gets the glory – it’s plaintiff Viviane, who delivers a magnificent final reel blast at The System that most viewers will heartily applaud.
Written and directed by Elkabetz with her brother Shlomi, Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem was nominated for a Best Foreign Film Golden Globe, ultimately losing out to the Oscar-nominated Leviathan. If you favor action, kinetic camerawork and special effects, this is definitely not your film – but if intelligent writing and excellent acting are your bag, you can’t go wrong.
Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly. Read more from Big Screen Berkeley on Berkeleyside.
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