By Andrea Gronvall andreagronvall@aol.com

The Gronvall Report: Shlomi Elkabetz on GETT: THE TRIAL OF VIVIANE AMSALEM

Divorce court in the movies has never been as suspenseful as the proceedings at the center of Israeli drama Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem. Winner of the Ophir (Israel’s parallel to the Oscar) for Best Film, and a Golden Globe nominee for Best Foreign Language Film, it follows its titular heroine over the course of five years as she attempts to convince her spouse of some two decades to grant her a gett, the formal release from their glacial marriage that, under strict religious Jewish law, only he can grant. If he doesn’t consent, Viviane will forever be regarded as an agunah, or chained woman, one who in observant (especially ultra-Orthodox) Jewish societies, is regarded as an outcast.

For her earthy, yet regal portrayal of Viviane, the magnetic Ronit Elkabetz (The Band’s Visit, Late Marriage) has earned comparisons to such screen icons as Maria Falconetti and Anna Magnani. Viviane is far more progressive than her introverted, intractable husband Elisha, played by the versatile French-Armenian actor Simon Abkarian (Zero Dark Thirty, Casino Royale, Yes). Of North African descent, the traditionally religious Elisha in late middle age still has not adjusted to life in Israel’s largely secular culture (for instance, he prefers not to speak Hebrew because he regards it as the language of prayer). The couple’s differences are insurmountable, but Elisha simply will not let go.

Making Viviane’s case even harder is that the three rabbinic judges hearing her petition have a mandate to preserve Jewish families. In Israel, the rabbinic courts have final say in almost all matters concerning Jewish marriage and divorce. This is a situation that dates back to the Middle Ages, when the Ottoman Empire ruled the region, and invested rabbis with authority in local Jewish communal affairs. Today, most Israelis, whether observant or not, still must navigate this system. (Although a relatively recent law permits civil court weddings and divorces, both partners must have officially registered as being non-religious, and so far relatively few Israelis have chosen this route.)

When it opened in Israel last fall, Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem sparked a national conversation. Just this past week, the film was screened at the annual rabbinic judges convention, so they could see what the buzz is about. The movie is the third co-writing, co-directing cinematic venture between Ronit and her brother Shlomi Elkabetz; the siblings made two earlier movies about Viviane, To Take a Wife (2004) and The Seven Days (aka Shiva, 2008). Wiry, highly verbal, and quite the smoker (although polite about it), Shlomi was in town last fall for the Chicago International Film Festival. The very model of an Israeli hipster, he found some time in his packed schedule to talk about his craft.

Andrea Gronvall: When you named your film, did you tend to evoke any parallels to Franz Kafka’s novel, “The Trial?” I ask because as I watched Gett I often felt as though trapped in a bewildering, absurdist universe. The movie is alternately disturbing, maddening, and darkly funny.

Shlomi Elkabetz:  Our first attempt to write the screenplay we were terrified.  What could happen in this one room during a running time of two hours—in narrative time, over the course of five years—that would generate enough emotional energy to sustain the audience’s interest? Then something very exciting happened: we found we could write 200 pages because so many things could happen on screen. The name of the script originally was “The Trial,” but it was suggested that we should change it to something more independent of associations with Kafka. One day Ronit said we should call it “Gett.” And I replied, it’s Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem, because (1) while Viviane is being judged by everyone at these sessions, (2) at the same time she is judging everyone else in the courtroom. But the general atmosphere of our story is completely Kafka-esque because of this [ancient] law. We knew that we were conducting a circus, in the sense that the situation on screen is ridiculous, but you’re still taking part. When we first started to show the film we were surprised at how audiences responded. There was laughter, but also stillness, because of all the tension. Last night [at the festival showing], people shouted back at the screen, “When are you going to grant her a divorce?” And I remember at the first screening in Cannes, the audience reacted like Israelis, like they understood the world we were evoking. As filmmakers when we set out to do something we can’t always anticipate the reactions of viewers. We are not computer programmers; there is no set way, no prescription for how to make a movie. Watching Gett with audiences has been a unique and happy experience.

AG:  Years ago I had an acting teacher, the great improvisational director Del Close, who banished the word “no” from our work because it would stop whatever scene we were trying to create dead in its tracks.  But you and Ronit have done something remarkable by investing the word lo—“no”—with so much potent mystery. We can’t figure out why Elisha won’t give Viviane a divorce, so each time he says no, another character witness is called to testify, and the story moves forward. And thus we get another view not just of the couple, but of Israeli society as well. How did you arrive at this structure?

SE:  Sometimes when I teach acting I do this exercise where we get a couple of people to stand up, and one says “yes,” and the other says “no.” The entire exercise grows from that. So, I could imagine five years of yes and no, where the whole story becomes yes and no. Why is Viviane saying yes? For her right to be free? To fall in love again? To experience life from a new perspective? And what does Elisha say no to? “No” to all of these, and also, “No, I can’t be someone else. I don’t know how to live my life when I am not the one in charge.”

AG:  This is the last film in a trilogy. I have not seen the first two, but can say unequivocally that this film stands on its own as a riveting drama. I am curious, though: have the characters changed over the course of the trilogy?

SE:  The characters changed over time because Ronit and I changed over the years. If you see the other films, you will see different aspects of these characters, but you don’t need to see the films in chronological order. In To Take a Wife, Viviane has to get to that point where she can believe that she can be free.  In The Seven Days, we see her dealing with the large family she was born into [Viviane is the only woman among nine siblings].  Thematically, the trilogy is about how women cope in a patriarchal society.

AG:  Is there anything autobiographical about the trilogy?

SE:  These films are fiction, but they are meant, in a way, as an appreciation of our mother—although she never sought a divorce, and, as far as we know, never discussed that possibility with anyone. My origins are Moroccan, and Arab Jews are the people I know the best. The French in the film is part of our culture; the main characters speak Arabic and French because we’re French. Among other things, these films are about the impact of immigration—on the immigrants, and on other Israelis. When Ronit and I began the trilogy, it was the first time Israelis from the Maghreb could see themselves on the screen. Before, they always looked exotic, or were portrayed as stereotypes. I certainly couldn’t recognize myself in any of the Israeli movies I saw when I was younger. It was as though Arab Jews had to erase their past. Before my mother saw Gett, the last time she had been to a movie theatre was 40 years ago.

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“One of my favorite things in watching any performance on film is when there isn’t a lot of cutting going on and when you get a chance to become really absorbed in the artist in hand. The same way we do, hopefully, at a concert, when we get a chance to really trip in to something that’s happening on stage. Whether the singer’s singing, or one of the other musicians is playing, we sort of stay there instead of cutting round with our eyes a lot.”
~ Jonathan Demme

“We’ve talked about this before in the past, my obsession with the Shakespearean histories having the ideal combination of the sweet and the sour. In ‘Henry IV, Part II’ which we’ve discussed before, in the end of that story it’s very complex and haunting because Prince Hal becomes Henry the King, and he has transcended his hoodlum days and at the ceremony is Falstaff, his good friend with whom he has really fucked around and been a loser with, and Falstaff comes up to him and says, ‘Now that you’re king we can really party,’ and the king famously says, ‘I know thee not, old man.’ It becomes Henry IV’s anointment and Falstaff’s catastrophe. That’s life. I have experienced very little unfettered triumph. There are moments, such as when my children are born, but even that comes with new fears and anxieties. In a sense the better you can communicate that life is both at once, the more powerful over time something becomes. One strives for something where the threads are there because it lasts in way that is very palpable. The idea of a tragedy is powerful in literature and theater, but in cinema it doesn’t work, certainly not commercially, and less so critically. Why is that? I think it has to do with how movies are so close to us.”
~ James Gray