Music Box Films (Israel/France; 2014) 115 min.
Director: Ronit Elkabetz & Shlomi Elkabetz
Screenplay: Ronit Elkabetz & Shlomi Elkabetz
Cinematography: Jeanne Lapoirie; Editing: Joëlle Alexis; Production Design: Ehud Gutterman; Costumes: Li Alembik
Stars: Ronit Elkabetz (Viviane Amsalem), Simon Abkarian (Elisha Amsalem), Menashe Noy (Carmel Ben-Tovim), Sasson Gabai (Shimon Amsalem), Eli Gorstein (Head Rabbi Salmion), Rami Danon (Rabbi Danino), Roberto Pollack (Rabbi Abraham), Rubi Porat Shoval (Rachel Amzalleg), Ze’ev Revach (Simo), Keren Mor (Galia)
Gett is an Israeli-French co-production written and directed by star Ronit Elkabetz and her brother Shlomi Elkabetz concerning a long-term court case in which a woman’s petition for divorce from her husband was repeatedly hindered by delays and dismissals, leading to her being personally persecuted (the subtitle of the film, The Trial of Viviane Amsalem, can be taken in several different contexts).
With marriages granted and dissolved in Israel by governing bodies of specially appointed rabbis rather than civil courts, she ends up as pilloried as Hester Prynne. The difficult, nigh impossible task of a woman obtaining a divorce under orthodox laws that stipulate the consent of a husband is made palpable in the film. Gett, a Hebrew word for the official document husband hands wife to finalize proceedings by making her available to all other men in the eyes of God, and applied more generically as a byword for divorce, depicts the process as a maddeningly circular catch-22. In order to be released by a spouse she no longer wishes to have any say over her, women are still more or less required to defer to their husbands in the matter, to gain their permission.
I always expect foreign films to have a different dramatic tempo and slower rhythm than mainstream American movies. You have to approach them with a particular mindset, an unrushed willingness to be led, because one never quite knows what to expect or if they will have a happy ending the way we pretty much do with commercial Hollywood fare. The products of alien cultures, they always contain the hidden promise of taking us further than American movies would dare, and in more unexpected directions. Which is one reason many people love foreign films and others hate them; they represent the unknown. But once you’ve seen enough movies you start wanting to find the few that break from traditional form and I found Gett pleasing because it so successfully did this. The directors adopt a unique approach to the traditionally stagy trial film by taking it to the extreme, setting their entire story almost entirely inside one tight little small claims courtroom. Carl Dreyer’s classic silent The Passion of Joan of Arc, taken largely in close-up, did pretty much the same thing, using a roving camera to impart the constant flow of visual movement upon proceedings despite the limited setting. So Gett may very well be intended as homage. Certainly its indomitable heroine Viviane is depicted in the same austere, virtuous light of a martyr as she fights for her rights against a bigoted, male dominated religious and legal system designed to deny her any say in the direction of her own life.
Expertly portrayed by the great Israeli actress Ronit Elkabetz, with her lustrous raven hair and queenly carriage, she has the noble profile of an eagle, especially when accompanied in extreme close-up by that heroic, soaring score mixed by Bassel Hallack. Like The Stoning of Soraya M., Gett decries the plight of oppressed women in the Middle East by appealing to American notions of chivalry, same way the publicity machine did in order to buoy Bush’s War on Terror after 9/11. So it’s vaguely amusing when Viviane, by way of irony, brings up the ease with which women can obtain civil divorces under the secular American judicial system, as if Vegas weddings and Reno splits should be encouraged as an international standard. Certainly something is being lost in translation here.
Keeping the film shut in, Gett makes the audience feel as claustrophobic and stifled as the wife does, subliminally placing us in a similar mental and emotional state that forces one to identify more strongly with her desire for freedom. We feel just as imprisoned as she becomes mired in the nonsensical court system year in and year out, unable to get anywhere in her divorce proceedings. Prevented from moving either forward or back, it’s the ideal metaphor for her personal state of purgatory, this travesty of a trial becoming every bit as suffocating as the marriage she’s seeking to escape. The increasingly outlandish machinations contrived to deny the wife’s petition makes it seem as if the entire patriarchal society were in cahoots to conspire against her. By endlessly dragging the case out, they hope to take the fight out of her, exhausting her into giving in and withdrawing her case. The obstacle course erected in order to obtain a gett is intended to serve as deterrent.
If the filmmakers don’t bother elucidating the personal reasons behind such acrimony between husband and wife as much as we might expect that’s because the back story can be found in the earlier two films in this trilogy, To Take a Wife (2004) and Seven Days (2008). Gett is more interested in the loopy injustice of religious-based legalities so the camera remains firmly rooted in the court room, never taking us behind closed doors. All we learn about the pair is delivered by way of the evidence given publicly, mostly third-party eyewitness testimony by a parade of colorful character actors, and through what the subdued protagonists’ slight shifts of expression reveal (Gett is an actor’s delight of a movie). With a demure demeanor that belies an iron will as obstinate and unmoving as his wife’s, as long as her husband Elisha (Simon Abkarian) feels he can hold Viviane to him in some way, continue thinking of her as his private property, he’ll never acquiesce to her demands. If he can’t keep her locked in his house, indefinitely trapping her in the courtroom is the next best thing.
As our outrage and frustration with what’s depicted as an absurdist system keeps building from scene to scene as months then years elapse, the movie is meant to have a mounting emotional impact on the audience, making us angrier and angrier until we blow our top and say enough already. So it serves as catharsis for us when Viviane begins to unravel, her ingrained need for freedom subconsciously expressing itself in her untying her hair to let it fall down about her shoulders and in the bright clothing choices which vibrantly clash with the black and white austerity of the court. Her fiery outburst at the end serves to let off our pent up steam as well, even if we’re too busy reading what she’s saying at the bottom of the screen to actually watch what she’s doing behind the subtitles.
In its dramatic structure, Gett actually recalls those courtroom dramas set in the pre-Civil Rights south such as To Kill a Mockingbird, where honest lawyers like Viviane’s representative Carmel Ben-Tovim (Menashe Noy) doggedly fought for their clients against hopeless odds. Carmel must serve as mouthpiece for this silenced woman denied a voice in the world and a say in her own affairs. But the way the movie is structured, he’s made to seem inept as an attorney because the character witnesses he calls keep giving Viviane’s case a black eye. Their outrageous and disrespectful behavior either descredits their own testimony by making it seem unreliable, as with sister-in-law Rachel (Rubi Porat Shoval ) or Elisha’s slimy brother Shimon (Sasson Gabai), who’s been hired to represent him, will twist their words so that they reflect poorly on the wife.
The corrupt patriarchal court system of Gett, which is slanted to favor male plaintiffs and denigrate the rights of women, encapsulates the larger injustices of the society that spawned it. As the diverse assortment of witnesses for the prosecution and defense pass by, their psyches broken down and the dynamics of their own marriages laid bare before us, we’re afforded a bird’s eye view of women’s place in Israeli culture and how their worth is measured strictly in relation to the men in their lives, whether husbands, fathers, brothers, or lack thereof.
It also gives us further insight into why the court views this woman’s request for a divorce from a decent husband with no reasonable grounds from their perspective, to be such a breach of orthodox social etiquette, blatant willfulness on her part, a virtual abomination. The legal limbo Viviane gets caught up in under the Israeli system becomes a savage satire on the archaic biblical laws the rabbinical courts were founded upon. Exploiting sexism to attack the foundations of orthodox Judaism, Gett is a social tract intending to call attention to the unbalanced scales of nonsecular justice, outraging audiences in order to encourage them to agitate for social and religious reforms, a complete separation of church and state.
The movie focuses in on this one outstanding court case only as a convenient means to anchor the much larger themes it encompasses concerning the suppressed sexual hostilities of Israeli society at large, which feed into what occurs during the trial. The intimacy of the surroundings is meant to make us feel the injustice of the situation more subjectively but setting the entire movie in the judges’ chambers tends to reinforce the perception that woman’s proper place is indoors, in the domestic sphere of a home. Moreover, using as constrained a setting as Gett does results in a movie that seems physically inert and visually monotonous, imparting the impression that the directors are negating the art of cinema, which doesn’t have to be spatially confined the way stage plays do.
But when the technique is used consciously and to artistic purpose the way it is here, the negation of space can be just as cinematic as any other device. In Gett the directors use the camera to section the frame and divide the antagonists on opposite sides of the screen, like opponents squaring off in a ring rather than a courtroom, or to emphasize their private emotions in close-ups necessary since the characters aren’t fully revealed through the dialogue alone. The searching, unbound camerawork of Jeanne Lapoirie marks this movie as something far more liberatingly cinematic than a stage play could ever hope to be, with its visually fixed point of view.