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Film Review

Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem

In Israel today, the Rabbinic Courts have absolute control over religious matters, including vital issues such as conversion (Who is a Jew?), marriage and divorce. In conversions, those who do not conform to the Orthodox norms and rituals are not considered Jewish, despite being converted elsewhere by Reform or Conservative rabbis. Civil marriages can be performed but the couple are only considered partners, and not married until the marriage is performed under Orthodox standards. Divorce can be ordered by the religious court, but ultimately the husband's consent is required. The wife is nearly powerless and becomes an agunah, meaning a chained woman. The religious right in Israel has become steadily more powerful. In the highly fractured political system today in Israel, often it is impossible to get a majority in Parliament without the support of the religious parties. It seems highly unlikely that the founders of Israel, mostly non religious Jews, intended religious political parties to become so controlling. In the view of many, Israel has become a theocracy, with all of its consequent effects. The irony is that the majority of Israelis, although Jewish, are secular in practice and resent the influence of the Orthodox.

Shlomi and Ronit Elkabetz are Israeli siblings whose mother came to Israel with that wave of Jews forced out of Arab countries after the founding of Israel. They are both filmmakers but Ronit is also a well known actress, having appeared in many Israeli films (The Band's Visit & The Girl on the Train). They co-wrote and co-directed a trilogy about an Israeli Orthodox woman, Viviane, beginning with To Take a Wife (2005), then Shiva (2008), and now Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem. A gett is the religious document which releases a spouse from a marriage. Curiously, Viviane's last name, Amsalem, means people of peace.

Gett opens with a bearded Israeli attorney speaking directly to the camera as he addresses the judges of a rabbinic court. Carmel, the attorney, is representing Viviane, who has been trying for the past 3 years to get a divorce from her husband. We see both her and Elisha, her husband, and attorneys, with everyone in a very small plain room. We hear the judges speak and finally see them: three older bearded men in the standard Israeli business wear, dark suits without ties. The judges urge Viviane to go back to her husband who says he is willing to take her back, but she refuses. Then a title: 2 Months Later, and we are back in the same courtroom with the same judges. Carmel is an able, articulate attorney, who continues to try to get the judges to understand that this marriage should be dissolved, but the judges are very reluctant to force the husband to do much of anything, including showing up for the various hearings. They repeatedly urge Viviane to go back to their house and begin living with her husband again. Many hearings later, all announced by the elapsed time titles, witnesses are called, who each testify how praise worthy each party is: observant, caring, thoughtful, providing, etc. None of the religious reasons for a divorce seem to apply: her husband is not accused of hitting her, seeing other women, confining her in the house, and in fact is portrayed as a respected leader in his synagogue. However under questioning by Viviane's attorney, some of the witnesses for the husband also describe less positive aspects of Elisha, such as his stubbornness and willingness to hold a grudge. Viviane describes a different picture: cold, always critical, refusing to eat the food she prepares, never touching her, and not making love for years, which in itself is grounds for divorce. Her sister describes Viviane's years of psychic abuse, testifying that "a chained up dog in the yard has a better life". By now it is clear that the judges show far more deference to the husband, and are dismissive of some of the female witnesses. But Viviane's sister will have none of this. Still, years pass, with many scheduled hearings, a number of which have to be cancelled because the husband refuses to attend, and little has been accomplished. The story is like something from Kafka. Toward the end, the chief judge loses his temper, and in a remark that seems to summarize the courts' mindset, says "Know your place, woman!"

Ronit Elkabetz is striking with her strong face and long black hair. The acting is outstanding, and the camera work very accomplished. Often each speaker fills the screen, talking directly to us, then the camera shifts to show the object of the speech. There is a tension throughout the entire film which gathers momentum. Despite the film being in color, those colors are predominately white, black, and grays, which contribute to the claustrophobic setting. The film's format is unusual: we see nothing beyond the confines of the courtroom and the adjacent hall, and know nothing beyond what is spoken in the courtroom. There is no soundtrack except for music during the beginning and ending credits. The power of this film is in the directors' and actors' skill in depicting a woman struggling to be free. She is fighting an almost medieval system, determined to be unchained. Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem was the Israeli selection for best foreign language film but did not make the final cut to five. A news item on NPR online this morning noted that judges from the Rabbinic Court viewed the film, in itself highly unusual, but responded: "Our judges are not like that."

Yet the Elkabetz's have created a masterpiece that is an eloquent plea for women. Their stories are compelling and sad, and remind us how often religious strictures in all religions disadvantage women. Women, in these societies, are by design not free. These strictures are claimed to honor and protect women, but the reverse is true. They protect men from the imagined power of women. Was this the product of the otherness of women as viewed through male eyes? The physically mysterious aspects of women, from hidden genitals to menstruation, surely intimidated men. To say nothing of the imagined insatiability of women in terms of sex. So here we are at the beginning of the 21st Century and a large percentage of women are in some sense, still chained, and not just in third world countries. Even today, look at the struggles necessary to maintain the right to abortion in the United States. Not only is there a very real worry that the Supreme Court may overturn Roe v Wade, but many Southern and Midwestern states have succeeded in restricting abortion access. Running time: 115 minutes. Just opened at the Embarcadero, the Rafael (San Rafael), the Shattuck (Berkeley), and the Camera (San Jose).

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