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'Gett': A divorce trial drags on and on in Israel

Tom Long
The Detroit News

Three rabbis and a married couple walk into a small room and begin arguing.

That's not the setup for a joke. Instead, it's the basic premise of the exhausting, frustrating, draining and maddening film "Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem."

Apparently in Israel there are no civil marriages and no civil divorces. Everything is handled by rabbis. And if a woman wants a divorce, she has to appear before a court of rabbis. What's more, her husband has to agree to the divorce, since the male takes priority.

All of which is bad news for Viviane Amsalem (writer-director Ronit Elkabetz), a woman who has long been separated from her controlling, icy husband, Elisha (Simon Abkarian). Their kids are mostly grown and Viviane has tired of the lack of affection, the isolation and the criticism. She wants out.

Unfortunately, the stony trio of rabbis who sits in judgment of her marriage needs to be convinced there's a valid reason for the divorce. And there's no way Elisha is going to agree. He doesn't even show up for the first few hearings. And when he finally does show up he and the judges resort to stall tactics that can go on, seemingly, forever.

Weeks go by, months go by. Viviane agrees to a reconciliation, moves back in with Elisha, and then leaves him again. Weeks go by, months go by, years go by and still the rabbis dither, Elisha sits stoically and Viviane begins cracking.

Elkabetz, who co-wrote and directed with her brother Shlomi Elkabetz, works with sparse visuals — all the action takes place in the nondescript office space where the rabbis hold court and in an outside waiting room. In this drab setting, a marriage is dissected, family ties and bonds are torn, awkward truths emerge.

The rabbis come off as pompous voyeurs a good deal of the time, sure of their power and condescending. Witnesses are brought in to offer perspective and spill gossip about the couple. Weeks, months, years keep passing by.

The absurdity and unfairness of the process is abundantly clear and after a while the viewer starts to share Viviane's frustration and wonder why she's bothering. She seems bright enough, and she's apparently successful enough, to just walk away from all these quasi-religious constructs and be done with it. Jeesh, just leave the dude behind and get on with your life. Forget the bickering rabbis.

Ultimately the movie is wearying, but then it's likely supposed to be. If Viviane's going through the wringer, you're going through the wringer too. Viviane is a modern woman caught in a Kafkaesque web of archaic religious mumbo-jumbo. This goes on? Apparently.

tlong@detroitnews.com

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'Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem'

GRADE: B-

Not rated

Running time: 115 minutes