In Gett, the Trial of Viviane Amsalem, characters are almost exclusively shown from the point of view of the person looking at them. The camera acts as a replacement pair of eyes, with the effect that only characters who are being looked at can be seen. As such, subjectivity is placed at the core of Gett, and more specifically the subjectification of Viviane Amsalem herself, working to emphasise the injustice of Viviane constantly being looked at, yet not truly being seen. The final film in a trilogy from sister-brother filmmaking duo Ronit and Shlomi Elkabetz, which includes To Take a Wife (2004) and 7 Days (2008), Gett chronicles the five-year trial of Viviane (played by Ronit) seeking to obtain a divorce from husband Elisha (Simon Akbarian), who refuses to consent.
Jewish divorce proceedings come under the jurisdiction of religious law in Israel, presided over by the Rabbinic Courts, which disadvantages women by providing the husband with the sole power to grant his wife a divorce (“gett”), unless certain, exceptional circumstances exist. As a result, many women are left legally chained to their husbands in cases where the husband does not consent to a divorce. Such is the case with Viviane, whose determination to obtain freedom is matched only by the reluctance of both the law and her husband to recognise her entitlement to this most fundamental of rights.
The film is set solely within the formal confines of the court building, with text signifying how much time has passed since the previous court session. This restriction in setting acts on a symbolic level to create a sense of an absurd, Kafkaesque imprisonment – signifying that even though Viviane’s life continues outside the realm of the court, she nevertheless remains bound by the court’s (and her husband’s) mercy, never fully able to leave until she is granted her divorce.
Viviane mostly remains silent throughout, seemingly cognisant that her voice counts for little, and indeed when she does speak up in court, it is met with negative consequences. She is silenced by the (male) judges, or, as in one instance, her case is suspended for two more excruciating years after she rightly exclaims in frustration: “I could drop dead in front of you and all you’d see is him.” The extreme test on endurance placed on Viviane as the proceedings are endlessly drawn out, her silent resilience and the austere courtroom settings draw strong conceptual and visual comparisons to Marina Abramović’s 2010 performance piece “The Artist Is Present” at MoMA, where she sat still on a chair in silence for 79 days from opening to closing each day, with spectators invited taking it to sit opposite her. Viviane could just as well be Abramović, sentencing herself to sit silently until her husband relents. (It also helps that they bear some resemblance, both having long, black hair.)
Gett is clearly a film with a strong feminist message – an important one that is presented powerfully – however, to place this as its sole achievement would be reductive and inaccurate. Gett is also extremely effective as an anatomy of a relationship, with information tightly withheld and delivered in gradual, deliberate doses to the audience in witness testimonies or in telling glances between the couple, the ambiguity effectively maintaining the audience’s curiosity and interest. This narrative ambiguity also lessens the potential a film of this kind has to be overly didactic and black-and-white in its delineation of hero and villain. While the audience is clearly positioned to side with Viviane as the feminist heroine, Elisha, while flawed, is not without our sympathies, professing as he does to still love Viviane – this being his reason for not wanting to divorce her.
In the end, there is much to appreciate in the tragic and absurd Gett, the Trial of Viviane Amsalem. It stands up as a visually and emotionally resonant, masterfully constructed courtroom drama of rare and unique quality, anchored by Ronit Elkabetz’s magnificent performance as Viviane.
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