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by Esther Cohen
GETT: THE TRIAL OF VIVIANE AMSALEM is a 2014 Israeli-French drama film directed by a brother and sister, Ronit and Shlomi Elkabetz. The film was selected as the Israeli entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 87th Academy Awards (this February 22nd), but was not nominated by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Israelis often make wonderful movies, combining deep humor and deep pain. They are often psychologically complex, well-acted, and compelling. (I remember having the same thought, in college, about Czech films, when we were all watching Milos Forman and other Czech masters who could tell a story in a unique Czech way.) Gett (Divorce), which opens nationwide this week, is the third in a trilogy by Ronit Elkabetz, a very beautiful Israeli actress from a religious Moroccan Jewish family, and her producer brother Shlomi, who is beautiful, too, but he’s not in the movie. Their other two films, To Take a Wife (2004) and Shiva (2008), have not yet been made available in English. I hope they will be, now that Gett has opened to sold-out crowds at the Jewish Film Festival in New York.
The film tells a story that non-Orthodox Jews know but never see about what it takes to get a religious divorce, a gett, in Israel. For five years Viviane, a woman who doesn’t love her husband, not at all, who feels he is abusive and contemptuous of her, he doesn’t like her even a little, for five years Viviane tries to get a divorce in an Orthodox court. Three men, rabbis, defer to her husband and believe entirely that what he wants is what Viviane deserves. The husband is unappealing and unconvincing. There’s nothing good about him. Yet the rabbis defer. They don’t listen to Viviane, don’t consider her needs relevant. For years she is forced to continue in the world as his wife. And she refuses to give up.
What makes a movie good? Why do Israelis have the ability (the Elkabetz siblings are an example) to create a mesmerizing, difficult story with grace and humor and pain and charm? There are ways of explaining why the film works (it tells a horrible story, really compelling and true), but those explanations do not, in the end, do justice to the film.
Esther Cohen’s several books include Book Doctor, a novel, and Don’t Mind Me and Other Jewish Lies, with cartoonist Roz Chast.