Denerstein: A movie on divorce in Israel that will make you scream

According to Orthodox Jewish law, a woman only can be divorced from her husband if he agrees to give her what is known as a “gett,” a religiously sanctioned document that’s necessary if the marriage is to be dissolved. If the husband refuses, the woman cannot be divorced.This religious provision, which is part of Israeli law, can lead to heartbreak and frustration when a recalcitrant husband chooses to deny his wife’s request.This is the background for the powerful Israeli movie Gett: The Trial of Vivian Amsalem, a sobering courtroom drama about one woman’s efforts to obtain a divorce from her reluctant husband.

Ronit Elkabetz plays Viviane, a woman who hasn’t lived with her husband Elisha (Simon Abkarian) for three years. Viviane supports herself as a hairdresser, and still helps pay off the family mortgage.

As possessive as he is pious, Elisha won’t budge. As the movie unfolds, we learn about what appears to have been a loveless marriage in which Viviane became increasingly miserable. The couple had four children, only one of whom remains at home.

It’s instructive that the opening images are presented from Viviane’s perspective. She’s seated in the courtroom, which means the camera is looking up at the men who will decide her fate. Further elaboration seems unnecessary.

Vivian’s lawyer (Menashe Noy) persuasively argues her case, but can’t disguise his growing exasperation. Elisha is represented by his brother (Sasson Gabai). A three-judge panel is led by a rabbi played by Eli Gorstein.

Gett takes place almost entirely in an unadorned courtroom, where Elkabetz subtly and more directly reveals her reactions to the proceedings or to witnesses who testify during hearings that wind up spanning an agonizing five years.

Co-directed and co-written by Elkabetz and her brother Shlomi Elkabetz, the movie raises issues that range from legally and morally substantive to highly personal. In this context, marriage — no matter how unhappy — is deemed of greater importance than Vivian’s individual fulfillment.

What are the grounds for divorce? asks one judge.

She doesn’t love him anymore, says Viviane’s attorney.

A lack of love is not sufficient grounds for a divorce, replies the judge.

Not surprisingly, there are moments when this battling husband and wife, both originally from Morocco, look at each other with a bone-chilling contempt that amplifies the meaning of a familiar phrase, “If looks could kill.”

Elisha says his wife’s secular ways interfered with his religious observance and wrecked their 30-year marriage.

But the couple became engaged when Vivian was only 15, well before she legitimately could have known what she wanted from life.

Gett proves compelling because its clash of values is deeply felt and because the movie takes place in a hot-house atmosphere in which Viviane’s smoldering emotions are never far from the surface. Elkabetz’s performance is quietly vivid, expressing both Viviane’s long-suppressed sexuality and her mounting disdain for a lop-sided court proceeding.

It’s impossible, I suppose, for a secular American audience not to take sides in this dispute. The judges aren’t necessarily committed to saving the marriage, but they must obtain an outcome that conforms to religious law.

Still, law favors the stony-faced Elisha. At one point, the judges encourage Viviane to return home to try to work things out. She does, but the situation proves intolerable.

Without being preachy, Gett presents one of the best cases ever made in a movie for civil law, not as a means of opposing religion — those who choose to follow religious law should be able to do so — but as a way of protecting vital human freedoms for those who want to live otherwise.

Read more reviews at Denerstein Unleashed.