Gett is the end of a series of films about the failed marriage of the Amsalems. In To Take A Wife (2004) and 7 Days (2008), Viviane is already desperate to leave their marriage, which has grown cold over differences in observance of Jewish law, tradition, and Elisha’s efforts to conserve his Moroccan heritage. These films are all dense with conversation and cultural detail, often moving so quickly between Elisha’s Arabic, French, and Hebrew that it is easy to miss the cultural drama between feminism and Israeli orthodoxy playing out in the background.
A “gett” is a document that signifies a legally effective consent in Jewish law. Without a get, the husband and wife may not remarry, and the individual rights of a wife are still bound to law applicable to married women. And a get can only ever be offered by the husband. The Trial of Viviane Amsalem is Viviane’s attempt to require her husband to initiate these divorce proceedings, as she cannot simply leave him with her rights (including the right to remarry) intact.
The entire film takes place in a small courtroom. Over many years, Viviane returns to this courtroom with her lawyer to face the three judges that can, if sufficient reason is provided, force Elisha to sign a document of divorce. Sometimes Elisha comes, and sometimes he does not. Given the law’s clear advantage toward the husband, the inner absurdities of the process and its rationale slowly wear on her resolve. Eventually, the judges have enough and begin punishing his absences with jail time. But Elisha remains resolute. He refuses to divorce his wife simply because she is not as observant as she is – an argument with which the judges agree.
Multiple witnesses are called to the courtroom to defense of either party. And while the judges are primarily interested in testing the religious fidelity of either party, looking for the kind of flaws that would allow them to side with the most worthy contender, these testimonies of family members and friends begin to paint a picture of a deeply broken relationship. Viviane was married to Elisha when she was 15 years old. Though they felt a species of love for each other and produced several thriving children, it is clear that they are incompatible. Neither of them have experienced the real pleasure of marriage together, which involves all the intimacies and unexpected generosities that fill even mundane, daily tasks with purpose and dignity. This is really clear from the prior films in this series, even though it isn’t necessary to have seen them to feel the full weight of their marital wreckage in Gett.
The frequent appearances of comical family members and the antics of their lawyers livens up the drama from time to time, but the trial itself is filmed in a very direct, near clinical way. Edits move us simply around the courtroom as different parties are addressing the judges. At times the camera lingers on non-verbal interactions between Viviane and Elisha (whose last name, incidentally, can be loosely translated as “people of peace/shalom”). And in rare moments, the camera settles on Viviane, played by Roni Elkabetz, who channels a wide range of emotions through the slightest of smirks and grimaces. Her performance is mesmerizing. In one careless moment, she lets down her thick, dark hair and everyone in the courtroom stops for a moment, shocked, before she is commanded to return it to its proper place.
The simplicity of the film’s direction and framing makes for a welcome version of contemplative drama. There are slight movements of other characters in and out of the frame, a few scenes take place in the waiting room outside of the chamber, and the extraordinarily intense final moments tip into a closer framing. But this precision evidently ranks the Elkabetz’s among the finest filmmakers working today. Their cinematography calls to mind the intricate chamber dramas of Farhadi’s The Past or Kiarostami’s willingness to rely on simple gestures in Certified Copy. Its emotional depth recalls Muntean’s Tuesday, After Christmas. More could be said about the film’s critique of Orthodoxy and its insistence on the integrity of Viviane’s desire. But surely this is one of the great contemporary films about marriage.
Armond White comments that Stillman’s singular interest in character “reveals each one’s moral quest. The effort to behave decently, even by the most eccentric (self-serving) standards, gives Stillman’s upperclass stories a surprising kick and a fine grain.” It is marvelous to see these moral quests extend beyond the confines of a single movie, as a handful of familiar characters in fascinating variations are stripped of superficial childhood securities to make their slow, stumbling journeys toward grace.