‘Gett’ details agonizing delays of Israeli woman seeking divorce

‘Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem’

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

Under a traditional interpretation of halacha, or Jewish law, the decision to divorce rests entirely with the husband. Jewish divorce cases are argued before a bet din, or rabbinical court, and a Jewish couple can become legally divorced only after a husband presents his wife with a written bill of divorce called a gett  (sometimes spelled get). 

Just how agonizingly slow a divorce process can be and the emotional toll it can take on a woman seeking a Jewish divorce are vividly brought to the screen in “Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem,” which combines elements of such films as “Scenes from a Marriage,” “The War of the Roses” and “Saint Joan.”

If a Jewish woman does not obtain a legal Jewish divorce, she is not free to marry. If she has children in a subsequent relationship, they will be considered mamzerim, illegitimate and only able to marry other mamzerim. A Jewish woman who is separated but not divorced from her husband is deemed to be an agunah, derived from the same Hebrew source as the word for anchor. She remains anchored to her husband unless and until he grants a divorce.

“Viviane Amsalem,” stunningly portrayed by the superb Israeli actress Ronit Elkabetz (who starred in “The Band’s Visit” and “A Late Marriage”), is seeking to finalize a divorce from her estranged husband, Elisha (Simon Abkarian).


The couple have been living apart, and several good-faith efforts to reconcile have failed. As portrayed by Elkabetz, Viviane is by turns a strong female voice seeking independence and a beaten-down woman who gets close to the end of her emotional rope as her husband draws out the process at an unbearably glacial pace.

A three-judge rabbinical panel, headed by a main judge (Eli Gorstein), is restricted to a stringent enforcement of Jewish law, which places nearly all of the power in the hands of the husband in divorce proceedings. The judges seem compassionate toward the struggling couple and continue to encourage them to try again to achieve shalom bayit, or peace in the household. But it is clear from Viviane’s viewpoint that the marriage is irretrievably broken, lacking romantic attraction or any sense of couplehood. 

Elisha protests that he wants the couple to stay together for the sake of their children. Neither spouse disputes that the other is a good parent, but they cannot come to terms on whether to stay married.

Viviane is represented in the rabbinical court hearings by her lawyer, Carmel (Menasha Noy), the son of a highly respected rabbinic scholar who is so secularized that he is reminded by the judges to wear a kippah before the bet din. There are a few fleeing hints of some romantic chemistry between Carmel and Viviane, and these are seized upon by those representing Elisha, including his brother Shimon (Sasson Gabay), who also is a rabbi.

As the legal and religious arguments go back and forth, advocates for Viviane and Elisha ask intrusive questions about their fidelity, their roles as parents, her relationship to the female friends with whom she lives and his conflicted role at the synagogue, which he serves as a lay music director. Friends and relatives of the couple offer conflicting testimony at the hearings, which   seems to only further cloud the proceeding.

Elkabetz not only stars in this engrossing film, but she and her brother Shlomi Elkabetz wrote and directed it, and their skills are evident throughout. Director of photography Jeanne Lapoirie delivers superb cinematography, letting the camera linger of Viviane’s face, often in extreme close-up, as her expressions reveal the conflicted emotions she is experiencing.

Ronit Elkabetz as Viviane invites comparison with Meryl Streep’s ability to cover an entire range of emotions with a few slight adjustments of the position of her mouth, which hovers between frustration and an almost insane urge to laugh at the absurdity of her situation.

The film drags as the various hearings keep getting rescheduled with little or no progress toward a resolution at most of them. These protracted proceedings are important, so the moviegoer can experience the frustration that Viviane is enduring in her struggle to break free of her Kafka-esque bureaucratic and religious trap.

The movie, a joint Israeli-French-German project, was the winner of the Israeli Film Academy’s Ophir Award for best picture. It is an inspirational story of a woman’s struggle to push back against rigid religious restrictions and win the right to live her life on her own terms.