‘Gett’: Israeli marital mores on trial

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For Digital First Media

The Franco-Israeli collaboration, “Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem,” is a tale of one woman’s efforts to extricate herself from an unfulfilling marriage.

Israel is often cited as the only secular, non-theocracy in the Middle East. Israeli women are enfranchised with full voting rights, can drive cars, and must shoulder compulsory military service. However, when it comes to divorces, they are subject to an anachronistic, highly patriarchal system. It is under the aegis of Orthodox rabbinical courts.

In Israel, the state does not provide civil marriages nor civil divorces for Jews. If a woman wants to terminate her marriage, she must obtain a so-called gett, which is a religious bill of divorce. Unless there is evidence of physical abuse, infidelity, or lack of financial support, without her husband’s acquiescence, a woman will struggle to obtain a get. Without a gett, a religious Jewish woman cannot remarry. She becomes an “agunah” or “chained person.” As such, she is a social pariah.

Viviane Amsalem (Ronit Elkabetz. who also serves as the film’s co-screenwriter/co-director) is trapped in an unfulfilling marriage to Elisha (Simon Abkarian). They have had several children together. However, Viviane now feels that the marriage is loveless and wants out of it. Alas, that is not so simple. Viviane must appear before a three-member panel of bearded Orthodox rabbis (Eli Gornstein, Rami Danon, Roberto Pollack) and persuade them to grant her a gett.

As Viviane’s articulate attorney. Carmel Ben Tovim (Menashe Noy), points out, Viviane and Elisha have lived apart for years and haven’t spoken during their separation. Wouldn’t that be enough to warrant the issuance of a gett? Apparently not. Elisha insists that he still loves his wife. He claims that he wants them to remain married for the supposed good of the family. That’s enough to convince the rabbis that the marriage can still be salvaged. According to them, the couple just needs some more time to work things out.

As illustrated by title cards, year after year, Viviane returns before the rabbinical panel, albeit without success. Sometimes, Elisha doesn’t even bother to appear up at a scheduled hearing. The rabbis threaten to revoke his driver’s license, cancel his credit cards, or send him to prison. However, despite Elisha’s obstreperous conduct, the panel still won’t grant a gett to Viviane.

At various subsequent hearings, a flood of seemingly irrelevant issues dominate the proceedings. Rabbi Shimon (Sasson Gabai) is representing his brother. Elisha. He castigates Viviane as a wayward woman. Rabbi Shimon introduces a witness, who testifies that they saw Viviane in a café talking to a man who was not a family member. Bring on the guillotine! At one juncture, Rabbi Shimon asserts that Carmel is in love with his client, a claim without any factual basis. Even if it were true, should it be the basis to deny granting a gett to Viviane?

“Gett” is the third film in a trilogy from siblings, Ronit Elkabetz and Shlomi Elkabetz. In 2004, they commenced it with “To Take a Wife” and followed up in 2008 with “Shiva (7 Days).” Gett” won six Israeli Ophir Awards, including Best Picture. It became Israel’s official submission to the 87th annual Academy Awards for the Foreign Language Film, but was not nominated. However, “Gett” was nominated in that category for the 72nd annual Golden Globes. The film has added to the ongoing debate in Israel about inherent inequities in the Gett system.

Ronit Elkabetz is apparently undistracted by her competing duties as co-screenwriter and co-director. In the lead role, she does a superb job of capturing her character’s mounting frustration. Elkabetz’s nuanced performance enables the audience to recognize her character’s inner anguish, even though she has spare dialogue. Elkabetz is well-complemented by a uniformly strong supporting cast. Carmel Ben Tovim is particularly good as her beleaguered attorney.

“Gett” is a compelling, Kafkaesque drama. It provides a powerful indictment of Israeli marital mores.

*** 1/2 No MPAA rating (adult themes) 115 minutes In Hebrew, Arabic, and French with English subtitles

Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at lernerprose@gmail.com.


A screen capture from a trailer to the film "Gett" at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3jWp4i9SqqU

A screen capture from a trailer to the film “Gett” at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3jWp4i9SqqU

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