By the time Viviane Ansalem receives her gett (divorce) in the 2014 Israeli film, “Gett: The Trial of Viviane Ansalem,” she and the audience have been through a five-year wringer of humiliation, frustration and relentless stonewalling. The 2014 Ophir (Israeli Oscar) Best Picture-winning film, directed and written by siblings Ronit and Shlomi Elkabetz, casts an unflinching eye on the quagmire created by Israel’s religious laws for those who want to live a secular life.
In Israel, there is no separation of “church” and state when it comes to domestic law. There is no civil marriage and no civil divorce; only Orthodox rabbis can legalize a union or its dissolution, which is only possible with the husband’s full consent. This structure is based on a patriarchal system of justice that relies on charging the rabbinical judges with upholding the sacred biblical law to preserve Jewish households (the commandment of “shalom bayit,” or peace in the home).
The law applies to all Israeli citizens, whether they are religious or not. In its application, however, observance and domestic harmony may be mutually exclusive. In that case, it is observance that trumps.
A woman who desires to end her marriage must prove her case in a courtroom (“Beit Din”) presided over by three male Orthodox rabbis who have complete and essentially unchallengeable power over the proceedings and their outcome (appeals are possible but rarely successful). Essentially, despite the fact that she is the “plaintiff,” that is the one seeking the divorce, she is put on trial, forced to defend herself in a Kafka-esque legal proceeding with opaque and arbitrary rules of procedure that seem purposefully stacked against her.
Added to the unfairness is the fact that the husband has the law and power on his side; the rabbis cannot legally grant the gett without his consent.
“The Trial of Viviane Ansalem” opens with funereal music in a claustrophobic, windowless room where Viviane has tried without success for three years to end her 30 year marriage to Elisha, a man her parents arranged for her to marry when she was 15 years old. The setting is more prison-like than judicial. Her lawyer, Carmel, and Elisha speak about her to the three-judge panel. Symbolically, Viviane, whose fight this is, is relegated offstage until the moment the judges deny her a gett.
“Given the visual language we have chosen for the film, we are supposed to see her when her lawyer and husband are looking at her,” director Ronit Elkabetz, who also plays the role of Viviane, said in a press release. “We wanted the audience to see her for the first time when she hears that she is refused her gett. The word ‘no.’ From that precise moment, faced with this refusal, and the denial of her being, she starts to exist on screen.”
For the next 100 minutes, the audience is let through the keyhole of the closed doors of the rabbinical courtroom as Viviane and her secular lawyer battle her intransigent and religiously devout rabbi husband and his brother and lawyer Shimon (also a rabbi) for Viviane’s freedom. We feel as trapped and frustrated as she does, as court appearance after court appearance and setback after setback whittle away the years. Ultimately, it all comes down to a battle of wills between Viviane, who wants her freedom, and Elisha, who wants her by his side.
Because Viviane is asking the judges to order a man to grant his wife a divorce, the judges must hear witness testimony to determine whether she meets one of the narrow grounds that would allow them to do so. These include inability to clothe the wife, to fulfill her dietary needs or to satisfy her sexual needs. These do not include compatibility, which is at the heart of her claim. It is also irrelevant that she left the marital home years ago.
Although the essence of the story is tragic, the parade of witnesses lends an air of comedy and farce to the otherwise absurd proceedings. The realistic members of the couple’s community find ways to turn their testimony into an opportunity to talk about themselves.
Like the film’s Elkabetz directors, Viviane and Elisha come from Israel’s Moroccan Sephardic minority, and the testimony of their witnesses sheds light on the customs of that culture. The neighbor’s own marriage takes a brief spin at center-stage, as does the contrast between Viviane’s brother and sister, both invited to speak on her behalf.
“How should I know if they’re compatible? What does it matter? I make my wife good for me,” the neighbor attests. Her sister, a secularized modern woman, comes to court wearing peacock blue and is ultimately thrown out mid-sentence as she rails against the hypocrisy and prejudice that are the bedrock of the rabbi’s questions. Her brother, on the other hand, admonishes her and pleads Elisha’s case.
As Viviane, Ronit Elkabetz is a spellbinding mixture of steely determination and restraint with a barely submerged undercurrent of seething rage. Although she is silent for most of the film, her body language speaks volumes. Simon Abkarian, as Elisha, speaks even less, but his posture and eyes leave no doubt that although he too suffers, he will never yield.
Eventually, Elisha does offer Viviane a gett with strings attached; he will grant her a divorce if she promises to remain sexually faithful to him forever. She accepts, and therein lies the film’s richest food for thought.
After five years of victimization at the hands of an unjust and unfair patriarchal system, the tables have turned and Viviane is finally empowered. She is free to choose her own moral and ethical destiny. What will she do? Will she honor her promise and forgo romantic happiness, or will she discard the integrity of her word and treat the deal as a necessary deceit to have achieved her deserved freedom?
“Gett: The Trial of Viviane Ansalem” is the third in a trilogy that started in the 2004 “To Take A Wife” with Viviane’s brothers trying to talk her out of seeking a divorce. One can only hope that the Elkabetz siblings will follow up with an epilogue set in 2019. I, for one, would love to catch-up with Viviane five years post-gett.
Pictured at top: Viviane (Ronit Elkabetz) learns of another setback to her case.