The Israeli film Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem, is what a Kafka-esque movie would be if Kafka were a feminist. It is a surreal, maddening, even funny story, which—like the recent Iranian film A Separation—uses a personal tragedy to call attention to a larger travesty, a particular kind of injustice that occurs in the world every day.
The set up is simple. A long-married Israeli woman and mother of four, Viviane Amsalem (the terrific Ronit Elkabetz), wants her freedom in the form of a gett, a Jewish divorce. Her pious and, as we learn, passive-aggressive husband, Elisha (Simon Ekbarian), refuses. According to the laws of the land, the couple must appear before a beit din (rabbinic court) and lay their arguments out before a panel of three Orthodox rabbis. If those judges are not convinced that the wife has grounds to terminate the marriage, the husband’s refusal stands. The wife remains trapped.
For all intents and purposes, she and Elisha are no longer a couple; they do not speak, let alone co-habit. Viviane has been living in an outbuilding on her sister’s property for the past three years. But the judges demand to know more. If Elisha does not beat her, if he does not withhold money or sex, if he is not an adulterer, then he is not a bad husband; and if he is not a bad husband, why should she want to leave?
In vain do Viviane and her lawyer, Carmel (played with power and desperation by Menashe Noy), try to explain that the man and the woman in question are badly matched for each other. She has regretted their semi-arranged marriage, which began when was 15, from its first days; ever since, she and Elisha have made each other miserable. The judges shrug as though to say, Nu? They send Viviane “home”—back to her husband’s house—to try to work it out. When that fails, they tell the plaintiff and the defendant to call witnesses.
Since the entire film takes place over five years (!) in a bleak cell-like courtroom and its adjoining waiting areas, the relatives and neighbors summoned to testify liven up the proceedings that otherwise remain as claustrophobic and dystopian as Terry Gilliam’s bureaucratic fantasy Brazil. They inject some much needed energy and even levity. They also help give a fuller picture of contemporary Israeli society, how insular it can be, how gossipy and constrained, even for those who try to live a modest yet fundamentally secular life. As Viviane’s sister says bitterly at one point, “Life for a divorced woman here is shit.”
The judges seem shocked, but more by the language than the sentiment. They must know that, as grim as the process is for Viviane to gain her freedom, her future is even grimmer: any victory is bound to be pyrrhic. Unless—like the wife in A Separation—she tries to take her children and leave, she will continue to be bound by the laws of a theocracy that values her husband’s honor over her happiness.
Image: Ronit Elkabetz as Viviane in ‘Gett.’ (Courtesy of Music Box Films)