Almost the entirety of Gett: The Trial Of Viviane Amsalem (which I’ll abbreviate to Gett from now on for convenience) is set in a small courtroom, with only a handful of scenes set in the adjacent and equally cramped waiting area. It is a metaphor for the life of Viviane Amsalem (played by co-writer and -director Ronit Elkabetz), an Israeli woman trying to get a divorce from her husband, Elisha (Simon Abkarian). Religious Jewish law will only allow a divorce with consent of the husband (even when under civil law they are divorced), and since Elisha refuses this, Viviane finds herself trapped in a marital twilight zone that forces her to try her case before a rabbinical court. Only near the end of the film are we allowed one good look at the outside world (through a window, still), that strikingly conjures up the image of a prisoner about to be released, an impression that is enhanced by following the preceding trial of a woman trapped in her marriage and in a courtroom over an astonishing and frustrating five years. During that period, Viviane is subjected to questioning by a panel of three rabbis who often indirectly, but just as often directly suggest she should ‘just go home to her husband.’ In the meantime, the husband continues to refuse, and for some sessions doesn’t even show up, his motives never questioned and his behaviour never tipping the trial in Viviane’s favour. Various witnesses are heard, some pleading for Viviane and some for Elisha, but the case doesn’t move an inch because of Elisha’s continuous refusal, at times even to the frustration of the judges who are bound by their religious laws.
A small and enclosed setting as employed here could lead to the impression of a filmed stage play, but the courtroom is so small that Gett manages to overcome that. Perhaps forced by the lack of space, the directors employ mostly medium shots and close-ups, and the few medium-long shots are only from the viewpoint of the rabbis (and importantly, somewhat downward). Combined with the fact that characters often have to turn or look around other people to look each other in the eye, except when facing the rabbis, this furthers the idea that the marriage is truly judged before God, and that the people involved only need to look God in the eye. The precedence of religion over state is subtly enhanced by making Elisha a Moroccan Jew: he is Jewish, but not an Israeli citizen. Still, the fact that he is a Jewish man makes his stance more important than that of his wife, even if she is an Israeli citizen. Before this court, you are under the judgement of God first and foremost, with all the religious baggage that brings, and part of the baggage is that a male opinion holds more weight than a female one.
Gett is an obvious indictment of Jewish marriage laws and the fact that they are placed above civil law. This situation can leave women like Viviane in limbo, as they are not allowed to remarry, which would be considered adultery under Jewish law and thus substantially strengthen the husband’s case. The film never gets preachy though, mainly focusing on the frustrations and helplessness of women like Viviane Amsalem. It sticks to the facts and trusts viewers to draw their own conclusions. Providing very little insight into the lives of these people outside the courtroom, other than the accounts given by the witnesses, does make the film prone to repetitiveness, but any frustration this might bring to the viewer mimics that of the protagonist and seems fully intentional. It really makes you wonder how this practice can exist in what is considered a modern state, and this is exactly the message and effect the film intends to achieve. That it does so without being overly dramatic is due to the makers being in full control of their subject and their ability to choose reason over emotion, thus shying away from cheap drama. Elkabetz herself furthers this by playing Viviane with an admirable stoicism and restraint until late in the film, when her frustration bubble bursts. There is very little background information given, only hinted at, and certainly the supporting roles are underwritten and nothing more than plot devices (a result of the film’s structure), yet the actress manages to give us a look into the hopeless soul of this woman.