The heavy hand of religious fundamentalism, and its subjugation of women, is central to “Gett: The Trial of Viviane Ansalem,” an overwhelmingly intense film about an Orthodox Jewish Israeli woman trying to get a religious divorce. Set almost entirely in a courtroom, this mesmerizing and brilliantly acted film might be specific in its setting, but is utterly universal in its themes. You don’t have to be Jewish to understand the on-screen dynamics.
The plot is simplicity itself: Viviane Ansalem (Ronit Elkabetz, absolutely superb) wants a gett, a religious bill of divorce, from her husband Elisha (Simon Abkarian). She makes this appeal in front of a court composed of three bearded rabbis, but her husband refuses her request. And that’s just the beginning. The case drags out over five years, highlighting a system that favors male intransigence, with women having almost no say in the proceedings.
Elisha fails to show up for some of the court dates. When he does, he refuses to accede to Viviane’s wishes. Neighbors and relatives give conflicting testimony about the Ansalem marriage. Elisha is a no-show again. The judges insist that Viviane, who has moved out more than three years ago, return home and try to make the marriage work. She does, but moves out again, and even though it’s obvious she wants her freedom, Elisha refuses to grant it. And the judges, who have the power to force Elisha to grant the request, seem unwilling to do so.
Viviane, who is living with a sibling, is asked whether she has committed adultery (no one asks Elisha the same question). Seen with a strange man at a café, questions are raised about her fidelity (turns out it’s her lawyer). And when she protests about the treatment she has been given by the defense and the court, one of the judges admonishes her, “Know your place, woman.”
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All this plays out over nearly two hours in a film that is impossible to turn away from. Even though the setting is claustrophobic in the extreme, “Gett” is as dramatic as any traditional courtroom drama, bolstered by what it has to say about the male-female dynamic in a repressive atmosphere. Brilliantly edited for maximum impact, the film veers wildly from tragedy to farce, without missing a beat. And its key performers are nothing short of sensational: the dour Elisha, maintaining his male prerogatives to the end; impassioned Carmel, Viviane’s lawyer (Menashah Noy), railing at the court about its prejudices; and best of all, the sometimes haughty, sometimes weepy, always intensely combative Viviane, determined to be treated justly.
In the end, whether or not Viviane actually receives her divorce is beside the point. “You never see me,” she tells the judges at one juncture, emphasizing the demeaning nature of the court proceedings. That she can still fight, and retain her humanity in an unjust system, is the greatest victory of all.
Gett: The Trial of Viviane Ansalem
A+ Cast: Ronit Elkabetz, Simon Abkarian, Menashah Noy
Directors: Ronit Elkabetz, Shlomi Elkabetz
Length: 1 hour, 56 minutes
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