Contempt comes dressed in the garments of objectivity. To hear it expressed after ninety minutes of weasel words comes a relief. “Know your place, woman!” barks the chief magistrate of a rabbinical court to the title character of Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem seeking a divorce. The shock is what a shock those words remain, despite incontrovertible evidence that the system is rigged in favor of the husband. Israel’s entry in the Academy Awards for Best Foreign Film has itself the ruthlessness of a close Talmudic reading as sibling writer-directors Ronit and Shlomi Elkabetz show in grinding cross-examinations the near impossibility of an Orthodox woman’s getting justice. Except for a sop to suspense conventions in the last twenty minutes, Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem is designed to rattle the audience. It works.
After a twenty-year marriage that has produced four children, Viviane (played by Ronit Elkabetz herself) has had enough. She no longer loves him. The court, comprised of three members who take turn projecting grey bearded wisdom, remind the petitioner that they can do nothing unless her husband Elisha (Simon Abkarian) grants her request. He will not. Assured the law is on his side, Elisha often doesn’t bother appearing in court. He’s right. The judges threaten to revoke his driver’s license and freeze his credit cards (he doesn’t drive and uses cash). Complicating matters: Elisha’s brother Shimon (Sasson Gabai) acts as defense attorney — too clever, too beholden to paternalistic notions about not picking on the fairer and weaker sex, except when he dangles the possibility that she may have gotten coffee with Viviane’s weary lawyer Carmel (Menashe Noy) during the months (eventually years) of separation. Each time a title card announces “Two weeks later,” “Six months later,” “Four months later” prompts audience laughter. By the time the proceedings crawl into their fifth year, the case starts to look like Bleak House‘s Jarndyce and Jarndyce.
Whether the film is rigged for the prejudices of Gentile or secular audiences is a legitimate question. At Viviane’s lowest point she reminds the court that in the United States her husband would have been jailed for not appearing and given her papers immediately; I can imagine applause from a festival audience in Europe or an Academy members in his Malibu pad nodding. The Elkabetzes eschew background info (we memorize the courtroom’s yellow stained walls, three rickety extra chairs, and wobbly lectern). Each claims sexual neglect. Viviane says the presence of Elisha and Simon’s mother started the freeze, and from what I’ve seen daughters in law require special dispensations anyway. Elisha claims Viviane was a shrew. While the film doesn’t embrace the Renoir adage “everyone has his reasons,” the temptation to make Elisha more than the man with a fish-eyed stare of boredom never occurs to the Elkabetzes: a smart choice, for Shimon and the justices become the proxy targets of audience rage. Viviane wants her freedom, this should be enough, the film says. The testimony of the couple’s spice merchant neighbors provides the most fraught moment. The discovery that the wife — played by Dalia Berger as a charming woman whose clothes intimate pride in her husband’s modest income — was coached rattles the judges; they want happy marriages, each fulfilling a duty, not a sham.
Makeup artists age the principals subtly — people don’t change in five years as to become unrecognizable, especially for a group meeting in the same spot. Indeed, as month after grueling month passes something like a rapprochement happens between Viviane and Elisha. The hearing becomes a mechanism wrenched from the man and woman at its center; it’s happening apart from them. I won’t spoil the ending of Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem, but what looks like an act of final revenge is actually more poignant and hence devastating. Justice is served, according to the participants’ definition: fairly and mercilessly.