It's safe to say that none of the recent new wave of Israeli film-making articulates the sense of existential questioning of modern-day Israel as Gett, third in a series of films written and directed by the sister-and-brother team of Ronit and Shlomi Elkabetz about the life of Viviane Amsalem. After marriage in To Take a Wife and mourning in Seven Days, the Elkabetzes deal here with divorce, a sensitive topic in Israeli society, finding their recurring heroine (played with intense commitment by Ronit, an acclaimed actress in her own right) at the end of her tether.
Estranged from her long-standing husband Elisha (Simon Abkarian), with whom she no longer lives, she wants the divorce he is not willing to grant her - according to Jewish law, the husband has to consent in front of a religious court of three rabbis to set the wife free; and even though he is the first to admit Viviane has been an excellent wife, Elisha simply will not give it to her. Gett lies, thus, at the confluence of modernity and tradition, religion and secularism, love and duty, understanding and intolerance, as it focusses in on a cross section of modern Israeli society brought out as witnesses and participants in the divorce case.
The Elkabetzes stage the trial in a radically simple yet incredibly fertile way: never leaving the single set of the courtroom where Viviane, Elisha, the judges, the lawyers and the witnesses work out where the truth is, avoiding as much as possible any sort of wide-angle or group shots, Jeanne Lapoirie's camera trained insistently on the faces and physical presence of each person. What matters is not so much what is said but what you can read in the faces and body language of all present, and the Elkabetzes' approach is to allow each their own individuality as they come face to face with the central theme of the film: the sense of dignity demanded by the long-suffering Viviane. She wants nothing other than take charge of her own life, despite Elisha's persistent denial to do so for reasons that will not be understood until much later (and, truly, one of the most remarkable aspects of Gett is that the siblings refuse to fall into the easy trap of boxing in these people as heroes or villains).
In the struggle of wills and pride that follows, the film shifts constantly and consistently mood, from Kafkian absurdism to domestic tragedy, existential drama to raucous comedy, but always does so within the "white box" of the court room, refusing to lose sight of the key issue: a woman asking for a freedom she should not have to ask for. In a society that can be bewilderingly forward and sophisticated in some aspects yet quaintly parochial in others, the strangely old-fashioned patriarchal subtext of still requiring a religious divorce underlines how at the heart of Gett is a game of style rather than of substance - the appearance of the perfect marriage is more important than the misery those involved may be going through.
As Elisha's stubbornness extends the trial far beyond everyone's threshold for patience, Gett turns out to chisel and polish its theme until you understand that, really, this is about people who do not want to let go of love, even though they may look at it, or define it, in different ways. Masterfully shot and paced, extraordinarily performed by a superb ensemble cast (that stands, nevertheless, on the shoulders of Ms. Elkabetz's arresting performance that could have come out from any of the great Italian divas of the 1950s), Gett is a perfect marriage of form and function. Truly, all human life is here.
Israel, France, Germany 2014
Cast Ronit Elkabetz, Simon Abkarian, Menashe Noy, Sasson Gabay
Directors and screenwriters Ms. Elkabetz and Shlomi Elkabetz; cinematographer Jeanne Lapoirie (colour); composers Dikla and Shaul Beser; art director Ehud Gutterman; costumes Li Alembic; editor Joëlle Alexis; producers Sandrine Brauer, Mr. Elkabetz and Marie Masmonteil; production companies Deux Beaux Garçons Films, Elzevir & Compagnie and Riva Filmproduktion in co-production with ARTE France Cinéma, in association with Films Distribution and CN4 Productions
Screened February 26th 2015, São Jorge 1, Lisbon (distributor press screening)