This Israeli/French co production will not be making an appearance at your local multiplex. But if it appears at your local Art-house, catch it if you can. It is an eloquent and assured piece of film-making from writer/directors Ronit and Shlomi Elkabetz and a good example of the high level of quality and variety world cinema has to offer if one can escape for a moment ubiquitous Hollywood product. The Middle East seems to be a rich vein at the moment. This movie puts one in mind of A Separation (2011). Given that Rabbinical Law is every bit as medieval and uncompromising as Sharia Law it seems to me that movies like these can give us considerable insight into the why the gulf between Arab and Jew is so huge.
This film made its international debut at the Cannes International Film Festival in 2014. All the action, bar a few moments in the waiting room, takes place in a cramped and stifling Rabbinical court room. Viviane Amsalem (Ronit Elkabetz) is in court with her advocate Carmel Ben-Tovim (Menashe Noy) requesting a divorce from her husband Elisha (Simon Abkarian). Although she has been with him for forty years and born and raised his children it soon becomes clear that this is a loveless union devoid of any affection. Trouble is, the Rabbis can only grant Viviane her freedom if her husband agrees. Whether out of vindictiveness or genuine religious orthodoxy, Elisha will not agree. Although this seems an unpromising proposition on which to base a movie, this one grips you from the first few seconds, and holds you vice-like for the next 115 minutes. After months of argument and counter argument (on those rare occasions when Elisha deigns to turn up at all) the Rabbis decide to hear witnesses. This gives us a chance to see some excellent Israeli character actors in full flow and adds a few moments of humour to lighten proceedings.
As observers we never leave the court room and hear and see no more than the rabbis. This fact is emphasised by the elegant cinematography of Jeanne Lapoirie which seems always to be showing us the point of view of one of the characters, and often lingers on the face of listener rather than the speaker. Faces figure large in this movie from the very first frame when we are fixed by the piercing eyes of lawyer Carmel Ben-Tovim to the fathomless sadness in the pale tones of Viviane’s skin.
Ultimately this is a film about the subjugation of women in a male dominated culture. It is precisely because Viviane is not presented as blameless or saintly that we are able to see her powerlessness as representative of her gender. But if this all sounds horribly earnest and dour, it isn’t. The power of the story-telling draws you in, keeps you guessing and makes you care. The denouement is shocking and will elicit an audible gasp from your fellow movie-goers.