In an Israeli courtroom, we’re introduced to a married couple appearing before a trio of rabbinical judges. She wants a divorce. He does not. It’s a conflict of wills that gradually evolves into a gripping political and cultural statement, in this drama that captivated the Israeli film community and earned a Golden Globe nomination for Best Foreign Film.
Sibling writer-directors Ronit and Shlomi Elkabetz present the action entirely within the courtroom, making it not only the center of wife Viviane’s desire for freedom, but also a religious and bureaucratic straitjacket. Meeting after meeting, the rabbis continue to offer weak judgments and urge the couple to reconcile, as weeks turn into months and the case plods on past reason and logic. It quickly becomes apparent that Gett (in Hebrew, a religious divorce document) is never leaving the courtroom. And the characters may not either, literally and metaphorically.
While the oppression of women looks pretty cut and dry in some cultures, the restrictions in Israel appear more subtle. Viviane (played by Elkabetz) insists she will never return to her husband, Elisha (character actor Simon Abkarian), cautiously and quietly assuring the judges that the marriage can’t work and will never work. In her mind, a divorce should be forthcoming simply because the couple’s relationship is no more. What Viviane and her lawyer (Big Bad Wolves co-star Menashe Noy) politely describe as incompatibility is actually a restriction of freedoms, dictated by a husband who uses his religious observances to judge his wife.
But the panel of rabbis (all men) insists a divorce must either be granted by the husband, or be predicated on a tangible fault of his. Is Elisha unfaithful? Does he raise a hand to you? The honest answers are always no. Friends and family members attest to Elisha’s strong character. And the trial drags on.
Gett doesn’t convey the intensity you’d expect from a two-hour-long conflict, but it doesn’t have to. There’s a slow burn to the proceedings, an unraveling that exists to frustrate and confound rather than reach a solution. With each on-screen graphic that displays the passage of time – 2 weeks later, 4 months later, over and over – the emotions become deeper. And by compressing the case into a series of repetitive conversations, the Elkabetzes illustrate how utterly futile and ridiculous it all is.
Ronit Elkabetz keeps us feeling her pain, both in her acting and direction. She sits firm but dejected, her head often framed or blocked by others in the room (almost always men), including her tenacious attorney. Her eyes express a tired emptiness with perhaps just a touch of spark left.
It’s hard to imagine the construct of Gett holding your attention. But it does, driven by an exceptional script of small revelations that often lead to more questions. Witnesses come and go, a montage of Israeli family life, warts and all. Sometimes Gett feels like an unadorned court room drama, other times a tale of family secrets and dirty laundry. Above all, Gett has something to say about long-standing cultural issues in which women are forced to either never give up or simply give in.