On paper, “Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem” doesn’t sound like much. Except for a couple of short scenes that take place in a hallway, most of the nearly two-hour film’s action — if that’s even the right word for it — occurs in a room the size of a police interrogation chamber, where the title character has petitioned a tribunal of three Israeli rabbis for a religious divorce, or “gett.” Despite the seemingly uncinematic nature of this inert, even claustrophobic scenario, the film mesmerizes, utterly.
That is in no small measure thanks to Ronit Elkabetz in the title role. The actress, who co-wrote and directed the film with her brother Shlomi Elkabetz, makes for a luminous onscreen presence. Despite a part requiring long periods of silence, her character’s emotions are as visible — and as changeable — as clouds passing in the sky.
It should be noted that there’s no such thing as civil divorce in Israel, where, even today, the termination of a marriage cannot be granted — or even enforced, regardless of grounds — without the husband’s consent. This is true for all Israelis, whether secular or religious. Needless to say, this could lead to some potentially Kafka-esque impasses, if a husband refuses to grant his wife a divorce.
That is exactly the predicament in which Viviane finds herself at the beginning of this startling and powerful tale. For reasons that are initially rather opaque, her husband Elisha (Simon Abkarian) refuses to accept the dissolution of his loveless 30-year marriage, at times not even showing up for the compulsory hearings. Although Abkarian delivers an obstinate, even malevolent portrayal when his character does deign to answer the court’s summons — over the course of a trial that lasts for years, not months — this is not Elisha’s film. Viviane’s lawyer (Menashe Noy) does most of the talking, but it is Viviane who communicates the film’s central message — a searing indictment of patriarchy — if only with her sadly expressive eyes.
There is, of course, a bit of courtroom drama here and there — even, at times, moments of comedy. The testimony of Viviane and Elisha’s neighbors and relatives, for instance, ranges from the amusing to the melodramatic. Is there something going on between Viviane and her attorney? And is Elisha merely a man of devout, if distorted, principle or a psychotic?
Along with Elisha’s intransigence, the unanswered questions are, at times, maddening. More infuriating, however, is the deadlock that keeps this couple from getting on with their lives. Can this marriage be saved? Are you kidding me? It’s like a rotting corpse that hasn’t been buried yet.
It’s not Viviane who’s on trial in “Gett.” Nor is it Elisha, who’s holding her hostage to some muleheaded notion of propriety. Rather, it’s the system that’s perverse, in the way that it treats wives not like people, but property.
Unrated. At Landmark’s Bethesda Row Cinema. Contains some crude language. In Hebrew, French and Arabic with subtitles. 115 minutes.