Sunday, March 22, 2015

Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem (2015) Review

Directed by
Ronit Elkabetz and Shlomi Elkabetz

Like Luis Bunuel’s surrealist masterpiece The Exterminating Angel (1962), the entirety of Ronit and Shlomi Elkabetz’s Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem takes place within the confines of a single physical space.  In the case of Bunuel, that space was a lavish dining room where the aristocratic dinner guests could not bring themselves to ever depart; in Gett, that space is an Israeli courtroom where a divorce proceeding is taking place.  In both films, the narrative and characters are restricted to those enclosed spaces for absurd reasons – for Bunuel, it was the self-imposed alienation of the entitled social classes while in Gett, it is the absurdity of the inefficient Israeli judicial system, governed by the archaic and misogynistic laws of the Talmud more than the modern, progressive, “enlightened” conceptions of justice and equality.
But the comparisons to The Exterminating Angel are perhaps most resonant in both films’ cumulative effects on viewers: Both films are exercises in dullness, repetition, and extreme frustration.  They do not contain character development, dramatic tension, or narrative climaxes – at least not in any traditional senses.  They are rooted in the political task of placing viewers in the same social, emotional, and intellectual positioning as its characters, even if that necessitates that the events of the film become monotonous and a chore to watch.  Just as we ask with Bunuel, Why can’t these people just leave the dining room already?, the Elkabetz’s film forces us to ask, Why can’t these people just be granted a divorce already?  The answer, of course, has less to do with the people involved (and even their reasons for divorce) and everything to do with the individuals and institutions given the unimpeded power to grant divorces.
Gett (the Hebrew term for “divorce”) begins with Viviane Amsalem (Ronit Elkabetz) and her lawyer, Carmel Ben Tovim (Menasche Noy), bringing their case before a trio of Rabbi judges.  For over 30 years, Viviane has been unhappily married to Elisha (Simon Abkarian) but under Jewish law, divorces can only be granted by husbands.  Viviane pleads her case to the Rabbis that Elisha should be forced into absolving their marriage, but her initial arguments are unconvincing; by all accounts, Elisha is a pious, loyal husband who does not physically abuse her, has remained monogamous, and supports her financially.  Viviane simply does not love him anymore – an attitude which confounds the Rabbis, who see love and affection as frivolous byproducts of wayward, inferior femininity (the Talmud crucially does not contain the words “irreconcilable differences.”)  Instead of Elisha’s character being questioned by the Rabbis, it is Viviane’s; they reprimand her for speaking out of turn, attack her for inappropriate wardrobe, and take little sympathy on her, even when Elisha fails to show up on several different occasions.  The subtitle of the film, The Trial of Viviane Amsalem, is absolutely correct and ironic in conveying that for an Orthodox Jewish woman to be granted a divorce, her morality and her actions -- rather than her husband's -- must be inordinately chaste and unblemished. 
Gradually, we learn more about the marriage through witnesses and testimony.  Viviane runs a beauty parlor, but because Jewish custom demands that she have a joint bank account with her husband, she has little financial autonomy.  Elisha, who does not appear to have a job, lacks a driver’s license and does not have credit cards.  He claims that Viviane does not sufficiently observe the Torah and treats him badly.  The two barely look at one another, and have not cohabitated in the same house for three years.  This raises the key question: So why doesn’t he grant her the divorce?  None of the Rabbis or lawyers ask this question, which may reflect how no one in the courtroom is eager to rewrite gett policy or ask straightforward questions; rather, the Rabbis only seem interested in secondhand gossip or unsubstantiated but juicy hearsay (such as when they ask Viviane’s unmarried sister whether she or Viviane attend mixes for singles).

But Gett is not only about the ways in which Orthodox law constrains women’s abilities to have independence.  It is also about the bureaucratic stagnation, repetition, and obstruction of the gett process and its utter lack of resolution.  As the film opens, Viviane has already spent a year and a half in court hoping to have her marriage officially dissolved; by the end of the film, that number has swelled to five years.  Each sequence in the film is separated by 2-4 months, with titlecards serving as a sobering reminder of the total amount of time that has elapsed from the first time Viviane requested her divorce.  In limiting the narrative to only the days spent in court, the effect is unusual; we never really get to know Viviane and Elisha outside of the testimony offered by their family, friends, and neighbors, and this is not surprisingly littered with half-truths, false accusations, and misinterpretations (one witness for Elisha accuses Viviane of cheating when he once spotted her having lunch with another man; this man is deduced to be only Carmel, her lawyer).  But viewed in another light, this deliberate framing device conceals key events, characters, and exchanges from their daily lives, and as a result, strips the characters of their humanity, which is what the film argues that the Israeli judicial system is systematically guilty of doing.  Viviane, Elisha and their marriage become clinical, emotionless, and even immaterial.  The only thing that matters is that courtroom decorum and reverence toward the Rabbis and rabbinic law is upheld and unchallenged at all costs. 
The Trial of Viviane Amsalem is a frustrating and challenging film, not just because the inert actions of the Rabbis and the courtroom testimony become often quite dull and repetitive for the viewer (which is the intended effect), but because the whole judicial process is a waste of time for everyone – particularly when it is the husband, not the Rabbis, who has the final say on whether the divorce will be granted or not.  Elisha’s attitude is quite clear throughout.  So why does Viviane continue to pursue legal channels to challenge gett policy when the system of law is so patriarchal, unmoved and sedentary?  (A second, more nitpicky question would be how she could continue to retain the cost of Carmel, who we are told comes from a lineage of prestigious litigators, for the entirety of the five-year legal process.)  A divorce is more than simply symbolic, since it would liberate Viviane from financial dependence on her husband, although as a result of the dramatic action being removed from their daily environments outside the courtroom, both Viviane’s and Elisha’s financial statuses remain underdeveloped and vague – to the detriment of the film.  American audiences may wonder why Viviane doesn’t simply opt to leave Israel forever, and may read Elisha as a stubborn, one-dimensional zealous tyrant.  But I think the filmmakers intended to demonstrate how the reality of Viviane's plight is more complicated and inconvenient, and the film especially illustrates how Orthodox Judaism, embodied by the trio of aloof Rabbis, is rigidly unable to adapt to changing times and cultural attitudes.
Actually, let me correct that: A couple of things do change during the course of the film.  When Viviane is introduced at the beginning, she is draped in a long, black robe.  By the end, she has gradually morphed into donning a shorter white gown, revealing sandals, and has even let her hair down.  She now smokes and swears.  At first the Rabbis reprimand her, but eventually they stop caring.  Because after five years, wouldn’t you?
            (Note: Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem was Israel’s official submission to the Best Foreign Language Film category of the 87th Academy Awards.)

Rating: 3 Stars

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