'Gett, the Trial of Viviane Amsalem': Cannes Review

Gett, The Trial of Viviane Amsalem Still Cannes - H 2014
Courtesy of Festival de Cannes

Gett, The Trial of Viviane Amsalem Still Cannes - H 2014

An altogether strange but astonishing work of craftsmanship, this divorce drama unfolds scenes from the end of a marriage.

Israeli brother-sister co-directors Ronit Elkabetz and Shlomi Elkabetz boil down everything we need to know about an unhappy marriage during its dissolution in a rabbinical divorce court.

Gett, the Trial of Viviane Amsalem hinges on an Israeli law that might seem medieval to some foreigners: Conventional marriages between Jews come under the jurisdiction of the rabbinical courts, not civil courts, and can only be dissolved when the husband presents his wife with a “gett,” a divorce document, and pronounces in front of witnesses that his spouse is henceforth “permitted to all men.” In other words, a woman can’t be released from a marriage unless the husband agrees; he has all the power under the law. In the hands of sister-brother co-directors Ronit Elkabetz(who also co-stars) and Shlomi Elkabetz this patriarchal legal loophole becomes the wellspring for densely rich drama, told with stringent austerity but also humor and judicious empathy. It won’t be an easy sell to distributors abroad, but festivals and upscale TV channels should come courting with flowers, chocolates and proposals.

Set entirely within the courtroom and waiting rooms of a rabbinical court, the story unfolds over five long years as Viviane Amsalem (Ronit Elkabetz) and her lawyer Carmel (Menashe Noy) doggedly try every possible legal stratagem to persuade the court to compel Viviane’s stubborn husband Elisha (Simon Abkarian) to grant her a gett. Elisha is sometimes represented by his wily brother Shimon (Sasson Gabai) and over the years various witnesses, most of them highly unreliable, are called to give testimony before presiding judge Rabbi Solomon (Eli Gornstein, a dead ringer for Mandy Patinkin), who hears the case flanked by two other advisory rabbis.

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Although a work of fiction, the film feels like it could have been adapted from the records of a court reporter because of the confinement of the single setting. Each scene, some of them only a few scant minutes long because nearly nothing happened in court on that occasion, are introduced with a subtitle revealing how much time has passed since the last scene, emphasizing how grindingly slowly the wheels of justice turn. Over the long haul, it becomes clearer why the marriage broke down, although a great deal of information is deliberately withheld by the Elkabetzs’ stiletto-sharp dialogue. As more than one character notes, no one except the participants can ever really understand what goes on in a marriage, and this wise ambiguity is just one other reason why the film sometimes recalls Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage.

In work this stripped down and talk-heavy, nearly everything depends on the actors, and thankfully the cast is composed of a fighting-fit ensemble of crack performers. Elkabetz herself (who co-directed To Take a Wife with Shlomi before this) and the redoubtable character Abkarian (whom Western audiences might know from appearances in Casino Royale and Zero Dark Thirty) are first among equals. For great chunks of time they just sit in the court and say nothing (although both get bravura monologues eventually in the dock), but their minute changes in expression, seen in close-up, speak volumes about their feelings about one another and the action swirling around them.

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Perhaps aware that audience patience can be tested by courtroom drama, the Elkabetzs, DoP Jeanne Lapoirie (a regular collaborator with Francois Ozon) and Joelle Alexis tweak things so that the film feels more stylized and cinematic and not like some unwieldy tranche of filmed theater. Close-ups are often full frontal and long held, solidifying the echoes of Robert Bresson’s The Trial of Joan of Arc (1962) already suggested by the film’s title. Occasionally a beautiful symphonic piece will swell up under the action at odd times, suggesting feelings boiling under the surface. It’s an altogether strange but astonishing work of craftsmanship.

Production companies: An Elzevir et Compagnie, Deux Beaux Garçons Films, Riva Filmproduktion production

Cast: Ronit Elkabetz, Simon Abkarian, Menashe Noy, Sasson Gabay, Eli Gornstein

Directors, screenwriters: Ronit Elkabetz, Shlomi Elkabetz

Producers: Sandrine Brauer, Marie Masmonteil, Shlomi Ellabetz, Michael Eckelt

Director of photography: Jeanne Lapoirie

Production designer: Ehud Gutterman

Editor: Joëlle Alexis

Music: Dikla, Shaul Beser

Sales: Films Distribution

No rating, 115 minutes