We are in a small, barren courtroom. Besides the waiting room outside, we only inhabit the small, barren courtroom. Weeks pass, months even. Soon enough, half a decade has rolled on and we are still inside the small, barren courtroom. Though the room remains with the same white walls and the same desks, it morphs into a prison before our eyes. It resembles an echoing prison for the plaintiff who seeks freedom. With each and every passing year the courtroom grows smaller. It is only until the very end that we see the outside, albeit through a distorting window. The prisoner, the plaintiff, named Viviane. She seeks to divorce from her husband claiming her marriage of thirty years has been miserable and they are incompatible. This is the conflict of the Israeli film, “Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem,” directed by Ronit Elkabetz and Shlomi Elkabetz.
Under Orthodox Judaism, it is almost impossible for a women to have any control over whether or not a divorce can be made since all the power is given to the husband. Case and point, if the woman wants a divorce, the only way her wish is to be granted is if the husband agrees to it. If not, well we have a problem. Viviane (played by co-director, Ronit Elkabetz) has been depressed and devastated living with her husband Elisha (Simon Abkarian). She is far more liberal, secular, even as described by her relentless lawyer, Carmel (Menashe Noy). Elisha is conservative. Though it is a battle of opposites, it is also a battle of perception and truth. Elisha employs the help of his brother who is soon to be a rabbi. As much as Viviane explains that she does not love her husband nor does she see any possible solution with them remaining together, Elisha wants to keep the marriage intact. There is insurmountable tension between these two. We are first introduced to them as they make leering glances at each other behind the back of Carmel.
As stated earlier, the film only takes place in the courtroom with some small scenes or transitions in the waiting room. If this incites any sort of skepticism that the film may teeter towards repetition then those thoughts are unmistakably misguided. “Gett,” intricately dissects the space, using geometrical lines of tension drawn between each and every character in the room as markers to place the camera. Spatial position of one or more characters within the frame is always done with such succinct precision that each shot, deliberately placed right down to the very word in dialogue, maximizes the dramatic content. One particular moment involved Carmel cross examining a women with an overbearing husband. the husband had already given his testimony but after he finished he stood off to the side with a watchful eye on her wife, whose face showed an uneasy timidness. It cuts from a medium close up of Carmel, whose purpose is to uncover and lay open the oppressiveness of this husband who may be determining what this women is saying about the couple in question, to a medium shot of the women and her husband and even Elisha who fights the right side of the frame. The camera is situated such that the wall behind her is diagonal and there is a sense of distortion; the geometrical lines all point towards the oppressive husband, the tension is visibly always there and there’s nothing needed to be explicitly said.
The shot reverse shot, usually meant for practical coverage, is always used with effective exactitude to compound a train of thought, a trail of evidence or proof of one hidden truth after another. It is not merely coverage but contemplation. We are allowed to look upon the faces in the courtroom for a long time, studying their faces, watching their tiny gestures and mannerisms. It does not end there, though, for we can also hear them. Though you might not speak their language, you can contemplate on the linguistic dynamics that exist in correlation to the beats and events of the trial. The way in which Viviane pleads her case always changes. The editing, too, creates a perfect pacing; it is what allows us to feel the claustrophobia, the increasing suffocation of Viviane. Moreover, coupled with an incredibly effective use of title cards, there is an increasingly perceptible feeling that we want to get out of there, that the circular debate and the indecision exhibited by the men of the film seem revolting.
The minimalistic but ultimately humanistic approach to this film cannot be accomplished without great performances. If “Spotlight” carried with it an exciting ensemble, this film gives it a run for its money. Starting with co-director and lead actor, Elkabetz is riveting, no, revelatory. Maybe it is even a modern-day interpretation of Falconetti’s Joan de Arc in Dreyer’s silent film classic “The Passion of Joan de Arc.” Viviane has held thirty years of anguish and in this film she has to hold it for an unbearable amount of time and then some. Yet, with all the definitive sureness she exudes, what Elkabetz does extraordinarily well is still provide mystery. In a film that champions the observation of human reaction, we see as she always bombarded by hateful remarks and degenerative inquiries. There is a fragility there that allows us to know exactly what she thinking at one point and not exactly nothing right after. The same goes with Abkarian’s Elisha, who is more stoic but every murmur of movement resonates like thunder and lightning.
As with Viviane and Elisha, whose thoughts and actions always have us guessing, the story remains obscure to us. With perception and emotion constantly obfuscated, predictability melts within our hands and the suspense only gather as the claustrophobia dominates. As the title to this review states, “Gett,” is a masterclass of fine visual storytelling. Every aspect of the production compliments one another, even the use of score, though used sparingly, latches onto or soul as we being the endurance test of human resilience. The simplicity of the plot lays these humans bear in all their ambiguous glory. The film is about women in Orthodox culture. The film is about women in society and their gender and sexual roles. The film is about men in Orthodox culture. The film is about men in society. The film is about imprisonment. It is about freedom. It is about truth. What this film signifies is multilayered and as paramount as it is elegant. In a way, and I say this with confidence, this film is the “Rashomon” of divorce trials. At some point, we begin to see that lying and telling the truth may not be the same thing but could mean the same thing.
Several years back, I saw an Israeli film, “Fill the Void,” that depicted a girl who married her sister’s husband after the sister had died in order to fill the role of the wife and take care of the newly-born child. It spoke of similar themes and was filmed with spiteful restrained, as if every frame there was a silent scream for help. It is a great film. This film, here, is a great film. It is a film that should be watch and is one of the best of the year from any country. These films are urgent and revealing films on the condition of other peoples and cultures. Do yourself a favor a started getting educated. Please.