The other day a woman friend told me that, having been “born with a penis,” I’d never know what it’s like to have my power always in flux, dependent on men no matter how loudly I proclaimed my liberation. Well, I finally got what she meant watching Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem, in which an Israeli woman attempts to obtain a divorce (a gett) from a religious court of three dour, hairy rabbis after her husband says he doesn’t want to let her go. Patriarchal tyranny isn’t exactly a novel subject, even in a male-dominated industry like film, but Gett has a formal rigor that works like a vise. Though the procedure drags on for months and then—absurdly—years, we remain inside the small courtroom and smaller waiting area, the outside world unglimpsed until a telling shot near the end of the protagonist’s ordeal. Limbo, it turns out, is a corrosive place—the powerlessness eats at you.
Gett is the third and most accomplished film in a trilogy by Ronit Elkabetz and her brother Shlomi (the others are To Take a Wife and 7 Days), with Ronit once again a woman chafing under the bonds of her husband’s religion. For the first part of the movie, Viviane holds it in. Though she is not ultra-Orthodox—her hair is her own and her dress rides midway up her calves—she has been trained in obedience. A quiver can be felt in her tone, though: She has lived apart from her husband, Elisha (Simon Abkarian), for more than a year: What’s the holdup? The problem for the court is that Elisha never hit her, verbally abused her (at least in quotable ways), or cheated. Viviane’s own brother practically parrots Yente from Fiddler on the Roof: “He’s a nice man, a good catch. True? True!” When the chief rabbi commands her to move back in with Elisha and give it another go, you want to throw things at him. And it’s still early.
A word about the chief rabbi, played by the charismatic Eli Gornstein. He is grave, centered, with a bushy salt-and-pepper beard and a contemplative air. He doesn’t act closed-minded. He rebukes Viviane’s attorney—the son of a distinguished rabbi who has broken with the family tradition—for not wearing a kippah, but he’s even more impatient with Elisha’s rabbi brother, a nonentity who finally resorts to calling the determinedly proper Viviane a slut. These are not villains out of melodrama. The husband doesn’t sneer at Viviane or suck up to the rabbis. He’s taciturn, withdrawn. He doesn’t need to be obsequious or eloquent or to put on a show of being heartbroken. The burden of proof isn’t on him. Without a word, he can prolong Viviane’s agony for years.
Time is the strongest character in Gett. When Elisha doesn’t show up, the trial must be postponed. Some of the onscreen titles: ONE YEAR LATER, SIX MONTHS LATER, TWO MONTHS LATER. (Godot comes, leaves.) THREE MONTHS LATER, FOUR MONTHS LATER. (Godot checks back in, wonders why it’s taking so long.) Viviane begins to unravel—but a woman who acts out in a rabbinical court risks having her case thrown to another rabbi in, say, six months or even dismissed. The audience, on the other hand, is allowed to yell, and Gett is a movie to make rude noises at, if only to keep from going mad.
It’s tempting to put all the blame on fundamentalism, though the male entitlement of our “great religions” strikes me more as a symptom than a cause. The brilliance of Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem is that, without a shift in tone, the film begins to seem like a tragedy populated by clowns, its males clinging to ancient laws to compensate for feebleness of character. Probably it’s little comfort to my penis-envying (not in the Freudian sense!) friend or to the women who still lose fights for jobs, equal pay, etc., but too much power can make a man’s soul a puny, flaccid thing.
*This article appears in the February 9, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.