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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“When Bay keeps these absurd plot-gears spinning, he’s displaying his skill as a slick, professional entertainer. But then there are the images of motion—I hesitate to say, of things in motion, because it’s not clear how many things there are in the movie, instead of mere digital simulations of things. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that there’s a car chase through London, seen from the level of tires, that could have gone on for an hour, um, tirelessly. What matters is that the defenestrated Cade saves himself by leaping from drone to drone in midair like a frog skipping among lotus pads; that he and Vivian slide along the colossal, polished expanses of sharply tilting age-old fields of metal like luge Olympians. What matters is that, when this heroic duo find themselves thrust out into the void of inner space from a collapsing planet, it has a terrifyingly vast emptiness that Bay doesn’t dare hold for more than an instant lest he become the nightmare-master. What matters is that the enormous thing hurtling toward Earth is composed in a fanatical detail that would repay slow-motion viewing with near-geological patience. Bay has an authentic sense of the gigantic; beside the playful enormity of his Transformerized universe, the ostensibly heroic dimensions of Ridley Scott’s and Christopher Nolan’s massive visions seem like petulant vanities.”
~ Michael Bay Gives Richard Brody A Tingle

How do you see film evolving in this age of Netflix?

I thought the swing would be quicker and more violent. There have been two landmark moments in the history of French film. First in 1946, with the creation of the CNC under the aegis of Malraux. He saved French cinema by establishing the advance on receipts and support fund mechanisms. We’re all children of this political invention. Americans think that the State gives money to French films, but they’re wrong. Through this system, films fund themselves!

The other great turning point came by the hand of Jack Lang in the 1980s, after the creation of Canal+. While television was getting ready to become the nemesis of film, he created the decoder, and a specific broadcasting space between film and television, using new investments for film. That once again saved French film.

These political decisions are important. We’re once again facing big change. If our political masters don’t take control of the situation and new stakeholders like Netflix, Google and Amazon, we’re headed for disaster. We need to create obligations for Internet service providers. They can’t always be against film. They used to allow piracy, but now that they’ve become producers themselves, they’re starting to see things in a different light. This is a moment of transition, a strong political act needs to be put forward. And it can’t just be at national level, it has to happen at European level.

Filmmaker Cédric Klapisch