Saturday, February 28, 2015

Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem

Proponents of traditional marriage say to gay people "You can form a civil union, why do you need to get 'married?'" A response is that this ignores the symbolism that makes marriage special, symbolism that is tied up with a vow before man and God "to have and to hold, for better or worse, 'til death do us part."  Those words make the heart pound as we walk down the aisle whether we believe in God, or not.

It's true, we are cavalier with the promise to stay true 'til death do us part. The divorce rate in the United States is a matter of some debate, but it's safe to say that perhaps 40% of marriages in the United States end in divorce, not death.  Yet, the symbolism is clear: marriage is like the union of the United States; you enter of your own free will, but leaving involves trauma, and you may not be able to leave.  Witness the Israeli film Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem, (released 2/14 but just now coming into wider circulation).

Jews don't tempt fate with a promise of permanence.  Instead, the man declares his spouse consecrated unto him "according to the laws of Moses and Israel." Luckily for those who find they have made a mistake, the laws of Moses and Israel accept divorce as a fact of life. A man can initiate a divorce at any time, and for any reason, or no reason at all. A woman, too, can initiate divorce proceedings. But there's a hitch--she cannot obtain a divorce unless the man consents. No one said it would be easy.

Ronit Elkabetz as Viviane Amsalem
The film Gett, written and directed by Ronit and Schlomi Elkabetz, takes aim at the pain and injustice that can result from granting the husband a veto over divorce. The action in this brilliantly written and acted one hour 55 minute drama takes place in the sparsest of movie sets: an institutional  room, two tables for the litigants and their counsel, an elevated podium for the three judges. The room is harshly lit by daylight diffused through antiseptic window shades. Despite the appearance of several witnesses, no color or life from the real world enters this courtroom.

Simon Abkarian as Elisha Amsalem
The chief judge (played by Eli Gornstein) is a kindly character ready to do the right thing. He very quickly sizes up the situation. Viviane is a poised, attractive, charismatic hairdresser, faithful wife and mother of grown children, and she is utterly suffocated by her life with Elisha; Elisha is pious and Orthodox, well respected in his synagogue, but sullen and friendless, with left-over childhood issues, loveless, emotionally cold and distant, and stubborn--he adamantly refuses to grant his wife a Gett, the formal grant of freedom for his wife to marry another man.

The overly patient judge is in a tough position. The right thing to do is to grant this couple a divorce because they are obviously incompatible, and their life together is hell. But it is almost impossible for the court to do the right thing unless the husband consents. And he's not consenting.

One option is to make do. NPR had a story five years ago about Ramit Alon, a real life person in a similar situation. Faced with an intractable husband who refused to grant a Gett, she took the kids and abandoned the marriage. It' s an unsatisfactory solution, without child support, alimony, or the ability to start over with a new marriage. Such choices come with considerable social stigma.

Viviane Amsalem forces the issue. The result is a Kfkaesque trial, which drags on for five years. The lead judge is way too indecisive, much too indulgent of the husband's repeated failures to keep court dates,  refusing to issue a final decision. Michael Phillips had a nice turn of phrase in his review in the Chicago Tribune--for five years, he says, we watch these characters "trapped in the courtroom, trying to maneuver their way out of it, soul intact." Much is communicated through pauses, looks, facial expressions, and careful dialogue. Through witnesses and the wrangling of the attorneys we get glimpses into this male dominated world, some of its prejudices, and the limitations on the power of the court to act. The court indulges these parties much too long, through repeated build ups in tension and periodic catharsis. Without a hearsay rule, or other visible rules of evidence guiding the process, and no apparent clue of what they are looking for, the judges voyeuristically follow every rumor of longing, meetings in cafes, fantasies of emotional attachment to another. Without the legal tools to do the right thing, the judges seem to lack a moral compass for true justice.

Viviane ultimately gets her Gett.  The result is not uplifting.  Is it the fault of the law that empowers the husband in this case to withhold his consent, or is it the fault of the very human failing of Elisha, and the tragedy of this marriage? For what it's worth, the divorce rate in Israel is considerably lower than in the U.S.  The trials of Viviane depicted in this film are not the norm in Rabbinic courts.  There were 11,219 divorces in rabbinic courts in Israel in 2013, and the process took an average of 96 days. Do we enter into marriage until we no longer feel like it, or is there something more? Should the state establish barriers for leaving a marriage beyond the complicated business of disentangling lives entwined? Should this include some type of consent from the other? What do we mean when we imbue marriage with value over civil unions? The film presents a captivating meditation on such questions.

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