I was expecting something different before going last week to see the movie Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem. Mostly likely I wasn’t paying attention. Given that the movie is about the shoals of traditional Jewish divorce law, I was expecting a Haredi setting. While religion, religious law and religious authority figure heavily in the movie, they do in ways more loose than ultra-orthodox. Starring Ronit Elkabetz, a major figure in Israeli cinema, the film’s racial-ethnic and linguistic contours are entirely Moroccan-Israeli Jewish. Mostly in Hebrew, the film slides into French, with a little Arabic. The social setting, I think, is lower middle class or upper working class.
The plot’s simple enough, Viviane Amsalem wants to divorce her husband Elisha. By Israeli law, this requires an orthodox divorce, a get, which is both a legal document and which demands a particular ritual ceremony which marks the husband’s release of his wife. Her husband Elisha refuses to grant her the divorce and she is “chained” to the legal process that unfolds over some five years. Cold and claustrophobic, the entire film is shot in the shabby room of some small local religious court. A symbol of the law, the white walls frame the human figure, figured in the dark eyes and beards of the actors, and their black sartorial aspect.
The film figures many things.  Lines of authority, that are patriarchal, religious, custom-based and traditional, neighborhood and community based, and sexual. I won’t say much more than this, that the get-document and its rite are the movie’s main dramatic persona. It stands out as a stark form of patriarchal release, conditioned by male authority, constraint, and control.  Bodies –faces, legs, hair, beards. Men and women, they are middle aged, worn by age and stress, heavy or thin. Plain and ordinary, all of the faces are handsome and elegant, even incredibly so when the shot is shot closely.  Broken lines of love and intimacy.  A directness of speech and angry address, and biting sarcasm, these are very Israeli. They represent a line of flight outside the shabby interior of the law and its social system.  Cold winter rain and diffuse pale light blocked by heavily glazed window, and one quick (perhaps unnecessary) glimpse of the warm street outside.
Gett is the third part of a trilogy by Shlomi Elkabetz, the brother of Ronit. The first two are To Take a Wife and Shiva (in English, it’s called 7 Days). I have not yet seen the first two films, which I’m now thinking is a good thing. Best to read the trilogy backwards, because that way the question of character, particularly the character of the husband remains more sphinxlike. In this case, reading back might work better. You can follow backward the deterioration of a marriage. There’s a profile of Ronit Elkabetz, which you can read here, at the Forward. . She is also the subject of a documentary called A Stranger in Paris.