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Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem
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by Jay Seaver

"Some time later, things are still messed up."
5 stars

If one has no other praise for "Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem", say this about it: Probably no movie ever made gets more mileage out of the "X Months Later" caption than this one. In some ways, that's sibling directors Ronit and Shlomi Elkabetz's best filmmaking weapon here, although they use everything else at their disposal as well to make a potentially dry film downright riveting.

The film could, apparently, start with such a caption, as this is the third film to feature co-director Ronit Elkabetz as Viviane Amsalem, with the previous establishing her and husband Elisha (Simon Abkarian) as separated. After three years living apart, she want a divorce, but this is not a simple procedure of civil law in Israel - it involves rabbinical arbitration and is almost impossible to manage without the husband's consent. Elisha does not even show up at the first hearing, and while Viviane has engaged to lawyer Carmel Ben Tovim (Menashe Noy) to represent her, Elisha eventually brings his brother, Rabbi Shimon (Sasson Gabai), in only reluctantly.

To look at the way the Elkabetzes stage Gett, one would almost think that it would work just as well as a play; it takes place it two or three connected rooms that are sparsely and simply furnished, and the camera work is relatively simple. And yet, that is decidedly not the case; those frequent cuts from one time period to another with the location and cast staying mostly constant are something only film and television can really do. As the film goes on, they select more first-person shots, especially as the lawyers questioning those offering testimony become almost horrific figures.

That emphasized lack of change points out the frustrating situation Viviane and Carmel face with women at a decided disadvantage; a patient man can simply wait out his wife because seemingly all the power rests with the man. The film burrows deep into the sexism present in traditional Judaism, although the attitudes and assumptions reflected are in no way limited to that culture. Through much of the film, the viewer is keenly aware that Viviane is the only woman in the room, so that when another is brought in to testify, it often changes the whole tone of the environment.

Even aside from that, there's a dizzying amount of illogic thrown at the audience; I suspect even those for whom this is their own culture will feel the frustration. In some ways, the central question of the film is just how inviolate the institution of marriage should be - even taking the sexism out of the equation, the operative assumption is that not only is a reconciliation the ideal result of any sort of marital discord, but practically the only acceptable one unless physical abuse is involved (and sometimes, even then). By not ever leaving the courtroom, and thus only presenting the Amsalems in these conditions that skew their behavior, the Elkabetzes force the audience to confront that presumption - we can only guess how difficult things are for Viviane, so her ability to to determine her own life is a matter of principle, not just a question of whether this situation merits it.

It's not just a film about ideas and clever use of cinematic form, though; the cast, both practiced and new to the series. Ronit Elkabetz is often pushed into silence by the system Viviane is fighting, but her attitude creates a framework for the rest of the film; Simon Abkarian is unnerving and unctuous as the husband. Meanwhile, Menashe Noy presents Carmel as worldly in a way that is out of place, especially compared to Shimon (who is not actually very smart), whom Sasson Gabai makes seem ridiculous but still dangerous. Eli Gornstein is a background force as the head of the panel, a wall that the rest of the characters crash against.

Put it all together, and the result is a tense picture that is tense but also knows how to walk the line between absurdity that can bring bitter laughs and cold fury. The testimony in "Gett" can sometimes be tough to wrap one's head around, but that's half the point, showing how sets of principles given too much adherence can make a mockery out of the institutions that they are meant to protect.

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originally posted: 04/06/15 15:04:15
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Cannes Film Festival For more in the 2014 Cannes Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 London Film Festival For more in the 2014 London Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Chicago International Film Festival For more in the 2014 Chicago International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 AFI Fest For more in the 2014 AFI Fest series, click here.

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  13-Feb-2015 (NR)
  DVD: 09-Jun-2015


  DVD: 09-Jun-2015

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