“Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem,” an Israeli masterpiece

by Andrew Kingsley | 5/10/15 5:55pm

In a first for my reviews, let’s begin with a round of “Would You Rather” — would you rather live as Sisyphus, forced to endure eternity rolling a rock endlessly up a hill, or as a wife eternally unable to divorce your abusive and psychologically manipulative husband? “Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem” (2014) captures what the latter might feel like, with writer, director and star Ronit Elkabetz chaining viewers to a couple enduring a marital hell. In the process, she more than earns the film’s best-picture award from the Israeli Film Academy and Golden Globe nomination, delivering a startlingly intense and moving picture.

Shot entirely in a claustrophobic, seven-seat courtroom, “Gett” begins with its protagonist invisible, marginalized out of frame until the men of the court address her. Portrayed masterfully by Elkabetz, Viviane has a look of suffering etched onto her blanched face from her first shot on camera — the result of years endured in an attempt to win a divorce from her unflinching husband, Elisha (Simon Abkarian), who insists that she is his burden from God and will not consent to the divorce. In Hebrew, “Gett” means a divorce document under Jewish religious law. To an American audience, a divorce between a couple that hasn’t lived together or spoken with each other for four years might seem like a no-brainer. But in the film’s orthodox Jewish society, where even the word “woman” is practically a slur, Viviane is treated as an hysteric that only Elisha can cure, and his consent is needed for the marriage to be dissolved.

Over the course of the film, Viviane returns to marital court nearly once a month for five years, gradually grinding her husband down by perseverance. She speaks with a voice rusted by pain, wearied by years of crying into a vacuum of sympathy. When speechless, the small manipulations of her hair and feet — quiet, defiant marks of her enduring femininity — become her language. And it is her eyes, hardened and piercing like diamonds, that distill and focus her repressed pain, threatening to erupt. Martyrized by lengthy close-ups, Viviane is lofted to Joan of Arc status, led on by twin Gods of righteousness and freedom that she may never meet within her lifetime. In her portrayal of her protagonist, Elkabetz gives an epic and searing performance comparable to Shakespeare’s “King Lear” in its raw volatility and stamina. Pour on judges, Viviane will endure.

Of course, pour on they do. Unable to force Elisha into a divorce, merely to delay his decision, the judges invite a number of external witnesses to offer their opinions on the marriage. Arriving in the courtroom, this band of clowns brings comic fresh air into an otherwise stuffy setting, offering pointless exercises in biased mud slinging. The film’s men, clouded by religious dogma, see Elisha as a saint and Viviane as ungrateful and frenetic. The women, tethered to reality, understand her plight, arguing that “a caged dog had a better life.” These individuals only increase the intensity of debate, yet affect no decision.

Beyond these testimonials, the film masterfully translates the absurdities Viviane endures. The inept clackings of a stenographer nibble at the toes of her sanity, and the tragicomic accusations of the judges go right for the jugular. As time progresses, the viewer becomes numb to the film’s title cards, which mark the months and years of Viviane’s wait — they begin to play out like a cruel joke, once funny but now curdled from abuse. Like a nesting doll, the film unveils cruelty after cruelty as Elisha vacillates over his decision, torturing Viviane like Tantalus with the fruit of freedom. Eventually, the film becomes near abuse, translating Viviane’s pain by forcing the audience to swallow concentrated doses of her decades-long trauma.

Thankfully, the film’s relentlessness goes beyond the simple “f*** the patriarchy” sentiments of many feminist films. Viviane would never say that — when men define your entire ontology, your words are worthless. It is only her determination, her exhaustive playing of their game, that succeeds. There are no rallies and no bullhorns in “Gett,” just the monomaniacal will of a woman hellbent on happiness. And in her 12-round emotional cagematch, Elkabitz delivers a knockout film worth entering the ring for.

Rating: 10/10

“Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem” played at the Hopkins Center on Friday night at 7 p.m.