The recent Golden Globe nominations had their fair share of surprises – Quvehzhané Wallis for Annie? Robert Duvall, really? – but perhaps its most interesting raft of nominees is found in the Best Foreign Language Film category. Alongside favourites like Ida and Force Majeure, Israeli drama Gett, the Trial of Viviane Amsalem muscled out serious contenders such as Two Days, One Night and Mommy to secure a nomination – and it may very well do the same come the Academy Awards. And yet, the film itself seems to have by and large slipped under the radar, attracting little substantial commentary.
Which is a shame, because Gett is a great motion picture that deserves to be in the conversation (though, personally, I still prefer Two Days, One Night). The Brisbane Asia Pacific Film Festival provided the opportunity to see Gett, but also to provide context – you see, Gett is the third film in a trilogy from Ronit and Shlomi Elkabetz, following To Take a Wife and 7 Days. While the latter was absent from the program, each of BAPFF’s screenings of Gett were preceded by To Take a Wife, which centres on the same characters and themes.
This is fortunate, since To Take a Wife had pretty well disappeared in the decade since it screened at Venice. Jay Weissberg’s review for Variety claimed that its standing ovation would ensure “festivals will be the first to jump, with arthouse buyers to follow.” Except the film remained underseen, accumulating single digit Letterboxd viewings at the time of writing. It’s no masterpiece, admittedly, but it’s a potent, angry piece of filmmaking.
It’s one of those films that is overshadowed by itself; its opening scene has Viviane (director Ronit Elkabetz) lit starkly and surrounded by pushy male relatives and friends who cajole and plead her not to divorce her taciturn husband. She ultimately relents, and the remainder of the film is a tense character drama – like a Farhadi film, except focused on Viviane as the one sympathetic protagonist – overlaid with the knowledge that Viviane is trapped in this marriage by societal pressure. The film that follows the first scene is good, but it never quite lives up to the affecting power of the opening minutes.
I haven’t seen sequel 7 Days – which sadly didn’t appear in the BAPFF line-up – but I admit that it’s hard to muster enthusiasm for yet another film centring on a family reuniting for a funeral. Gett, the Trial of Viviane Amsalem is, in essence, a feature length version of To Take a Wife’s opening scene, which is a gruelling and effective as it sounds. The entirety of the film occurs in the claustrophobic confines of a rabbinical court where, a decade after the events of To Take a Wife, Viviane pleads for the ability to have a divorce – a “gett” – from a husband she no longer lives with or speaks to.
To have such a seemingly simple request be dragged out over years as it does in Gett defies belief, but it’s an accurate reflection of how marital law operates in Israel (though this film is inspiring a push for change). The directors carefully balance the inherent ridiculousness of the hoops Viviane must jump through with the tragedy at the heart of Viviane’s plight, producing a film that is both intensely personal and deeply political. The level of craft on display outshines the competent work seen in their 2004 film; despite the obvious stylistic limitations within a courtroom, every shot is carefully composed and imbued with a thoughtful understanding of the characters and their role in society – both in terms of their relationship with others, and their position in wider society. This is a film worth talking about.