Monday, February 9, 2015

Dissecting Israeli culture via the getting of a gett: Ronit Elkabetz & Shlomi Elkabetz's quiet shocker GETT: THE TRIAL OF VIVIANE AMSALEM

It says much about the riveting urgency of this new film from the brother/sister team of Shlomi and Ronit Elkabetz that, although their movie takes place entirely within the confines of a drab Israeli office building and courtroom and lasts for nearly two hours, it will keep intelligent adult audiences (who either understand Hebrew or are willing to read subtitles) alert, captivated and probably very angry for its entirety. "Gett," you see, is the word for divorce in Hebrew, and a gett is exactly what our heroine Viviane cannot get from her intransigent husband nor from the court made up of three rabbis at whose feet she pleads. Can it be true that, in Israel today, there is neither civil marriage nor civil divorce? That's what happens when a government-sponsored religion asserts far too much control.

The Elkabetz siblings (shown at right, with Ronit on the left) deserve thanks for bringing this situation to our attention and praise for doing it so damned well. Acting as writers and directors, the two have created in GETT: THE TRIAL OF VIVIANE AMSALEM a testament to a culture that, for whatever else it has gotten right, remains both misogynist and backward in its placement of religion above law, and men above women. What the Elkabetzes have managed so cleverly and intuitively via showing us only the lengthy trial -- it goes on over a period of years -- is nothing less than a dissection of a huge slice of Israeli culture and social mores involving law, family, marriage, religion, synagogue life and the place of women in all of this.

So much is packed into this single trial that pits wife and her lawyer against husband and his (that lawyer is actually a would-be rabbi who is also the husband's brother). Witnesses include a couple of her family members and his neighbor, the neighbor's wife (who commands, haltingly but thoroughly, her definitive scene), and a few others, each of whom plays a distinctive and necessary part in demonstrating what Viviane (played provocatively and well by Ms Elkabetz, shown above, with her lawyer, beautifully played by Menashe Noy), and by extension Israeli women, are up against.

The husband is played by an actor, Simon Abkarian, whom we more often see as the hero in his films (The Army of Crime, Yes). He is equally fine here, playing a pungent and quietly nasty piece of manhood.

As the trial moves onwards, we piece together more and more of what this marriage was about, as well as how the state forever insists upon a kind of hypocritical reverence of god and the male and how this creeps into nearly every piece of cultural, social and personal life.

The smart screenplay uses its characters, including its triad of judges (above) both as living, breathing beings who matter and to point up the inconsistencies and inequities of Israeli life and law. Each new witness and scene opens up a different can or worms or nest of vipers. And the reactions to all of this by the various personages at the trial makes the movie a nonstop roller-coaster of ups, downs and surprises.

Only at the film's final scene, which for some reason focuses suddenly on the actors' feet, does the movie falter a bit. I must be missing something, but I failed to understand the significance here. This is relatively minor cavil, however, for otherwise this film is eye-opening, moving and sometime shocking.

Gett: The Trial of Vivane Amsalem -- from Music Box Films and running 115 minutes -- opens this Friday, February 13, in New York City (at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema), Los Angeles (at Laemmle's Royal), and Delray (Movies of Delray) and Lake Worth (Movies of Lake Worth) Florida. To see all currently scheduled playdates, cities and theaters, click here and then click on the word THEATERS midway down your screen.

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