in

Marriage and Divorce, Rabbinical Style: ‘Fill the Void’ and ‘Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem’

fill the void post

The institution of marriage, and therefore divorce, in Israel is regulated exclusively religiously, with rabbinical consent needed to sanction both marriage and divorce. In Fill the Void, rabbinical authorisation is first denied, then granted to an arranged marriage, while Gett tracks a woman’s Kafkaesque divorce proceedings as the years go by.

Premiering at the Venice Film Festival in 2012 and currently showing at The London Israeli Film & Television Festival, Fill the Void was billed as the first fiction film by a Hassidic filmmaker intended for general release, with head-scarfed writer/director Rama Burshtein and her Orthodox-garbed husband an unwonted red-carpet scene. At Venice, it won a Best Actress award for newcomer Hadas Yaron, while Asaf Sudry’s cinematography was rewarded at the European Film Awards.

Family and offspring, the core prerogative of Hassidic womenfolk (and a staple of the Jane Austen novels that inspired the film) are at the centre of this close quarters drama based on a real-life occurrence that caught Burshtein’s attention. Hadas Yaron stars as Shira, a demure, pretty 18-year-old thrust into a vortex of matchmaking intrigue following the sudden death of her older sister Esther (Renana Raz). After Esther dies in childbirth, Shira is saddled with looking after the newborn, while her betrothal to a timid young man she has only ever glimpsed from a distance (in a hilarious opening supermarket scene, Shira and her mother call the matchmaker who directs them to the dairy section for a sneak peek at the awkward youth) is called off because of the family’s continuing mourning.

The turning point comes when Esther’s widowed husband Yochay (Yiftach Klein) looks set to remarry and move abroad taking along his newborn son. Shira’s mother Rivka (Irit Sheleg), still freshly bereaved, is heart-broken at the prospect of losing her grandson, Esther’s only legacy, and devises to set Shira and Yochay up instead. At first both would-be fiancés are variously turned off, appalled, irked, but gradually Yochay succumbs to the idea. Shira’s opposition is now the final hurdle to patching up the family…

fill

While the storyline is fairly simple, the finished work is delicately crafted by first-time filmmaker Burshtein, and much like the central character, weaved around a balance of demureness and assertiveness. Burshtein’s touch – in writing, casting, directing and editing- evinces surprising maturity and assurance both stylistically and narratively. The middle part of the film is slow-flowing, taking time to dwell on characters’ (especially Shira’s) shifting emotional states, tactful and prim, devoid of any lurch into voyeurism or secular prurience. The superb performances, keeping the chemistry between Shira and Yochay simmering but never articulated, is a feat, especially considering Yiftach Klein’s otherwise hunky, erotically charged roles (such as the horny hyper-macho commando in Policeman (2011)) and his surprisingly successful transformation into a run-of-the-mill Hassidic widower.

Of key import in Fill the Void is the spare and authentic production design, no doubt aided by the filmmaker’s firsthand experience of ultra-Orthodox life as a baalat tshuva (she became religious after graduating from film school in her twenties) as well as her familiarity with the secular world. The dim, musty interiors and autumnal black-brown palette combine to create a hermetic, dusky atmosphere, whose austerity is nonetheless occasionally punctuated by moments of near-comedy and which the genuine family warmth and closeness prevent from feeling oppressive.

fill2

Visually, the cinematography is structured around the counterpoint between black and white (the men’s attire, the brides’ white gowns), with interior sequences dominating the washed-out outside world. There is hardly any foray outside the Hassidic microcosm, which is not however detrimental to the film (on the contrary, the obliviousness to the secular beach city probably renders the story more lifelike) – as the filmmaker herself points out, she finds artistic freedom within the bounds of the Hassidic precinct she has chosen.

A Manichean thread runs throughout the film as the key dramatic spur and, even more than the storyline itself, infuses the film with dramatic nervosity. The difficult balancing act between family loyalty and personal preference, the conjunction of mourning with celebration, the guilty pleasure of falling for a deceased loved one’s sibling or husband – to Burshtein’s credit, the structure of dichotomies is sustained until the very last shot. The abrupt ending comes as something of a slap following the more or less joyful wedding party: as the newly-weds retire to their wedding night, Shira’s face melts into a disturbing blend of dread and expectation, the filmmaker having won her bet of making a film about how wayward and unpredictable the ways of the heart are.

Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem, whose original title ‘Gett’ translates as ‘Divorce’, was first screened at Cannes in 2014 and is Israel’s entry in the foreign language film category at this year’s Academy Awards. It is the third installment of the Amsalem trilogy written and directed by Ronit Elkabetz and her brother Shlomi. The first part of the trilogy, To Take a Wife (2004) set in 1979, charts the marital problems of Viviane (Ronit Elkabetz) and Eliyahou (Simon Abkarian), punctuated by stubborn silences, violent altercations and hysterical outbursts. While Viviane contemplates leaving her husband, her brothers weigh in on his behalf and on behalf of preserving family honour, pressuring Viviane to reluctantly stay.  The second part, 7 Days (2007), focuses on Viviane’s relationship with her large, traditional Moroccan family during the weeklong period of mourning following the death of a sibling, with a subplot involving the now estranged Eliyahou trying to persuade Viviane to reconcile and return to live with him.

gett2

Gett  opens with the now slightly aged Amsalem couple inthe midst of divorce proceedings. While either party can file for a divorce, the husband’s consent is mandatory for rabbinical court judges to be able to issue a dissolution decree. Eliyahou’s refusal to grant the divorce and the absence of legal means to compel him to do so are the central premise of the two-hour long courtroom drama, set in its entirety in an austere room and the waiting area of a rabbinical court. The considerable cinematic gamble that is the use of minimalist, theatre-set production design – not least with respect to foreign audiences’ attention span– paid off both at Cannes, where the film was positively received, and with critics generally. Not surprisingly, the barely-there set design and near total absence of a plot, other than the testimonies and court deliberations, are all the better a foil for the superbly written and carefully cadenced dialogues, monologues, and verbal duels, and for the intensely memorable (if erring slightly on the theatrical side) performances.

Indeed, attending a rainy summer Parisian release in a huge and nearly empty theatre, I did not for a moment feel unnerved, nor wearied, by the nigh two hours of rabbinical deliberation. The caustic verbal jousts and  the immaculate acting, with magisterial performances by Ronit Elkabetz and Simon Abkarian, effortlessly yet tensely carry forth this most mundane of dramas. Early on in the film, long before the onscreen trial enters its third year, it becomes evident that getting the singularly obstinate Eliyahou to sign the divorce writ will be no straightforward matter. The film is iterated around a series of hearings extending into the months and years, the passage of time marked by the gradually thinning patience of the tribunal and the waning stoicism and growing despondency of the otherwise fireball of a woman Viviane Amsalem. By the end, just as we and the protagonist are about to breathe a sigh of relief, the  ritual oath whereby Viviane would be ‘permitted to all men’ proves unutterable for Eliyahou and to the horror of all present in the courtroom, the cycle is about to begin again…

It is hardly a stretch to say that the two long-loving-and-hating protagonists, aided by an impeccable supporting cast, are probably among some of the most emblematic cinematic couples – up there in the pantheon of doomed Bergman matrimonies, but less bourgeois and more urgently real. Urgently real is the figure of the larger-than-life, maturely voluptuous long-suffering wife fleshed out, rather than merely portrayed, by Elkabetz, striving for a divorce – her freedom, as she calls it – with all her being, hopelessly chasing the possibility of a late-found independence, vainly trying to persuade the three theologically-correct judges that she wants a divorce not in order to be with another man, but because of a prosaic list of grievances against her estranged, increasingly religious husband, such as that he does not love her, respect her, cherish her, take her to the cinema, etc.  Women and their needs, go figure…

gett

An important (and likely poignant because of the film-makers’ ethnic background) subplot – although probably inaccessible to audiences unfamiliar with the cultural heritage of Arabic- and Berber-speaking North African Jews – is the colourful, once-thriving but now waning Moroccan substratum. As the Amsalem trilogy progresses, the daily household use of the Moroccan Arabic dialect diminishes, even if, in this particular divorce court, the brothers and neighbours of a certain generation do still freely intersperse Hebrew with French and the singularly expressive Darija Arabic (with the elderly rabbinical judges and scribe not batting an eyelid at the use of French and Arabic).

Indeed, what little comic relief there is in Gett stems from the boisterous mannerisms of the disappearing North African immigrant ethos, and although some of the supporting characters could be perceived as smacking of stock Moroccan stereotypes, the over-the-top nature of this particular aspect of characterisation is more an homage on the part of the Elkabetz siblings to their origins than grubbing for a few cheap laughs. What some of the neighbours’ and friends’ characters may lack in subtlety is more than offset by the sublime performance by Viviane’s mild-mannered but implacable opponent rabbi Shimon, rendered to perfection by Sasson Gabbai (whose previous appearance alongside Ronit Elkabetz as an Egyptian colonel in The Band’s Visit was a cinematic tour de force). The North African subculture with all its ‘exotic’ intricacies and traditional values, the vestigial colonial French idiom, the colourful North African incantations, patriarchal family ties above all and wives subordinate to husbands – these are all elements integral to elevating the family drama from a hermetic divorce tale to a richly textured, almost ethnographic exploration.

A wealth of socio-religious themes are broached in the two-hour rondo, with the plaintiff, defendant, judges and witnesses allowing glimpses into the contemporary Israeli microcosm:   most centrally, the flagrant injustice of one gender being mandated the right of divorce, but also issues such as the clash of biblical law and modern-day reality, the growing schism between secular and religious citizens, the fight for introducing civil marriage. Yet other problematics, such as the inadequacies of public institutions to legislate the domain of (irrational) personal emotions or the blind refusal of one partner to accept that the connection between two people is irretrievable, are more universal. Which leaves the question – will they get divorced or won’t they?

Zornitsa Staneva

Part of our monthly theme: Hatchet for a Honeymoon: Marriage and the Screen


‘The Skeleton Twins’ delicately soars between comedy and tragedy

RIP Mike Nichols