Franz Kafka would shudder at the insane and malignant bureaucratic obstacles endured by the title wife in “Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem,” a denunciation of the Israeli divorce court by writer-directors Shlomi and Ronit Elkabetz. With devastating simplicity, the sibling filmmakers put together a crushing indictment of the obligatory, faith-based system. More importantly, they present a microcosm of women victimized by patriarchal institutions worldwide as well as an allegory of the universal struggle for freedom.
All this takes place in the confines of a crummy rabbinical courtroom that could double for the DMV office in a small town. Claustrophobic, but replete with telling details of expression, behavior, even hairstyles and dress, the limited setting proves a mini-arena of battling points of view, expressed both verbally and visually.
Though her opinion matters least of all in the proceedings, the perspective of Viviane (played by Ronit Elkabetz) dominates. She says little, but her husky voice suggests suppressed wrath and power. Many of the film’s shots are of her glimpses of the pompous folly of the all-male trio of rabbinical judges, the officiousness of the clerk, the sleazy, insinuating haughtiness of the defendant’s brother and attorney, Shimon (Sasson Gabay), and the smirking petulance of the man she is trying to escape by obtaining a divorce decree (or “gett”) and who is the only person who can permit it, her husband Elisha (Simon Abkarian).
Perhaps more cogent, however, are others’ observations of Viviane. Though restricted to a folding chair at a table next to her battered attorney Carmel (Menashe Noy), the only male sympathetic to her plight, Viviane’s face radiates the magnificence of another victim, the martyred saint portrayed by Maria Falconetti in Carl Dryer’s silent masterpiece “The Passion of Joan of Arc” (1928).
In Viviane’s case, the trial is more like a life sentence. With absurdist repetition, the hearing gets delayed again and again when Elisha first refuses to dignify it with his presence, then appears but refuses to cooperate, or cooperates only to delay the process, in each situation abetted by the decisions of the judges. Every session ends inconclusively with a black screen, then the trial resumes with a title reading “six months later” or “three” or “five.”
Viewers accustomed to the protocol depicted in TV courtroom dramas might shout out “Objection!” every time Shimon hysterically denounces Viviane as a “wayward woman” during his cross examination, or tries to undermine a witness by questioning her about being single. It is a shocking state of affairs in a country touted as the only secular democracy in the Middle East. It recalls the situation depicted in Kim Longinotto’s 1998 documentary “Divorce Iranian Style” and even suffers in comparison with the theocratic Iranian divorce court in the Oscar-winning “A Separation” (2011).
As powerful as it is as social commentary, “Gett” triumphs most as an examination of human relationships. The third in a trilogy by the Elkabetzes about the same unhappy, Sephardic Jewish couple that includes “To Take a Wife” (2004) and “7 Days” (2008), this latest film probes too deeply into the ambiguities of human nature and social pathology to allow a rush to judgment.
Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.