‘Gett’: The Horrors of Jewish Divorce

Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem spends two dreary hours in a cramped courtroom, but this galling battle for a divorce can move audiences to outrage and grief.

Courtesy Everett Collection

“It’s easy to blame the one who yells. The one who whispers venom is innocent.” This line is uttered with such disdain by Viviane Amsalem—played by Ronit Elkabetz with exquisite emotional restraint that allows for this perfect burst of contained anger—that it hits you like a sharp, fast switch to the face.

By this point in Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem, the title protagonist has been appearing before the beit din, rabbinic court, for years trying to obtain a gett, the Jewish divorce papers that a wife can only receive with her husband’s permission. Viviane can barely hold eye contact with her estranged—and that’s putting it mildly—husband, Elisha, who exudes the sliminess of a snake oil salesman with a dose of irritating cowardice thanks to Simon Abkarian (better known to American audiences as Alex Dimitrios from Casino Royale).

Eighty minutes into the film, the viewer feels almost as weary and frustrated as Viviane. That’s likely the point. Gett has a very slow build, which may feel even longer for audiences that have followed the Viviane Amsalem trilogy, which began with 2004’s To Take a Wife followed by 2008’s 7 Days.

Elkabetz and her brother, Shlomi, have now devoted over a decade to creating films around Viviane Amsalem, an Orthodox Jewish Israeli woman, as she battles through familial and societal pressure. In this final film, Viviane’s struggle to secure a divorce sparks as much theatrical drama as topical, true-to-life controversy. Israel doesn’t have civil marriages and, for that matter, civil divorces. Even in 2015, Jewish women must be granted a gett from their husbands to be freed from their marriages. Otherwise, they are agunot—chained women, permanently trapped in their marriages. “It’s understood that Viviane has no chance against this machine. She is fighting history, a whole history,” Shlomi Elkabetz told The New York Times.

Her odds against the religious patriarchy are clear from the get-go. During the majority of scenes, Viviane is the only woman in the room. She has her lawyer, Carmel Ben Tov (played by Menashe Noy with a touch of inappropriate fervor that suggests he likes her as more than just a client) by her side. Her husband sits with his brother, his lawyer, on the other side of the room. She faces three much older men in beards and yarmulkes, the rabbi-judges who will determine her fate.

Few movies can drag you into the emotional mindset of its heroes and heroines the way that Gett does and make the audience see and feel world as its characters do. To a certain degree, that means Gett can be exhausting to watch, especially for the first hour. Nearly all of the scenes take place in the tiny, ugly room where the three rabbis on the beit din hold court or in the narrow waiting areas outside. As a viewer, you can feel how dreary, cramped, and stifling—physically and emotionally—the space is for the trapped Viviane.

The cinematography plays to this sense of confinement. Shots are often narrow, with three or four people taking up the whole frame—sometimes just a single person, or a part of their body. Gett opens, literally, from Viviane’s perspective. It’s an upwards shot of her lawyer explaining that Viviane moved out of her home three years ago and her husband has since been denying her a divorce. It then cuts to her husband sitting, looking both slimy and sheepish. We only see his abdomen when he rises to respond to the judge. Then, we only hear his voice and see the pained look on her lawyer’s face when he responds, “No, your honor,” when the rabbis ask him if he will grant a divorce. The jarring initial seconds immediately put us in Viviane’s visual and emotional perspective; she is grounded and watches as the men around her decide her fate.

While so much of the drama of Gett is through gestures and expressions rather than spoken words, the script is sharp-tongued and theatrical, to the point that the lines are sometimes so blatant and blunt that it seems better suited for the stage rather than film. In other hands, Gett could have turned melodramatic as a result, but that claustrophobic cinematography seems to help the lines pack emotional and social insight rather than land as mere histrionic outbursts.

“A divorced woman in Israel eats shit,” says Rachel Amzaleg, Viviane’s sister-in law. “Who wants to marry a divorced woman? If you’re divorced, all your girlfriends stay away. They’re afraid you’ll steal their husbands.” Rachel is one of the many family members and neighbors who get dragged into the court proceedings to show the ridiculous lengths a woman must go to obtain a gett. While speaking on behalf of Viviane, she admits she told her to stay with Elisha because divorce means social alienation. That Viviane still yearns for it speaks to how bad her married life is; this is needed because we have no footage of her life with Elisha in this film.

“A chained-up dog has a better life,” says Evelyn Ben Choucan, the sister of Rachel, in another line that could be overly dramatic but instead paints a needed picture of Viviane’s misery. Evelyn is the only single woman who speaks during the whole movie. The scorn she faces from the rabbis and Elisha’s lawyers is second only to what Viviane undergoes. The rabbis try to trick Evelyn into saying—or implying—Viviane cheated, and she leaves after Elisha’s lawyer denounces her as jealous of Viviane because she is “barren.” If a divorced woman is the lowest rung, it is clear that a non-married woman is barely higher up on the ladder of this male-dominated society.

But there are more subtle points, as well—such as when both lawyers explicitly and implicitly ask the witnesses to Viviane and Elisha’s relationship what constitutes a good spouse and a good marriage. One neighbor, Dona, praises Elisha as a “liberal man” simply for letting Viviane travel outside the house by herself whenever she wants. Time and again Elisha’s lawyer asks the various neighbors and relatives if Elisha beat Viviane. Each time a witness confirms that he did not physically abuse her. It is supposed to be sufficient proof that he is a good husband, and therefore, Viviane has not earned the privilege of divorcing him.

Many of the witnesses speaking on Viviane’s behalf even confirm that Elisha is not a bad man, per se. But the fact that Elisha is not the stereotypical wife-beating, boorish abuser only further highlights Viviane’s—and likely many Israeli women’s—problem: incompatibility and unhappiness are not considered good enough reasons for a woman to be freed from a marriage.

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While the supporting cast of witnesses, lawyers, and rabbis are essential to understanding Viviane’s suffering over her multi-year efforts to get divorced, the potent emotional payoff of this slow-build film comes from Elkabetz. She has been heavily lauded for her performance as Viviane—and every item of praise is more than well-deserved. American audiences likely won’t know Elkabetz, but she is Israel’s Meryl Streep—only younger, and also directs. She has won three Ophir awards, the Israeli version of the Academy Awards, for acting, and has been nominated for others for both her on-screen and behind-the-scenes work.

Although Elkabetz is silent for much of the movie, her expressions let you know she feels dead inside when she’s around Elisha. Her jittery, choppy movements in her seat reveal her pent-up frustrations, like a calf penned in by a maniacal farmer. In fact, in one brutal scene near the end of the film, Viviane is awkwardly half-chased around the already tight confines of the beit din room, circling at half-speed because she knows there’s nowhere to go and yet she is unwilling to stop moving and be resigned to her fate as a chained woman.

The static scenes of disturbing, frustrating testimony in the first three-quarters of Gett make this scene all the more powerful: as a viewer, you have a sudden urge to tackle the men restraining her, physically and emotionally, and you somehow feel a bitter taste of the futility that Viviane has been forced to swallow for years.

Gett showcases the indignities, the insults, and the heartbreak that a woman can be forced to suffer through in an attempt to earn her divorce. Thanks to the skilled, careful storytelling of both Elkabetz siblings, we never doubt for a second that this battle is wholly worth it.