Anyone who thinks that feminism is an outdated movement clearly has no idea what happens outside their own backyard and this film is an excellent view into a part of the world where feminism is crucial. Directed by and starring Ronit Elkabetz as the titular Viviane Gett is a vivid glimpse into just one of many pockets of the world where women are denied the basic right of equality and control over their own lives.
The two hour film takes places exclusively in a courthouse in an unnamed Israeli city and follows the emotionally draining, frustrating and infuriating “trial” of Viviane whose only crime is her decision to opt out of an unhappy marriage. This proves a seemingly impossible task since in this male-dominated and religiously run court it is Viviane’s husband, Elisha, who retains all the power. It doesn’t matter what Viviane wants or says, Elisha has the final say. He has to agree to grant her a divorce and for the first bulk of the movie he happily abuses the power he has as a man by flat out refusing to grant the divorce and even stalling proceedings by refusing to show up for court dates.
Marriage and divorce are not dealt with through civil courts in Israel, but rather through a rabbinical court which consists of three observant Jewish men, at least one of whom must be a rabbi who is widely knowledgeable about Jewish law. The three rabbis overseeing Viviane’s trial are possibly more infuriating than her husband because they alternate between claiming to see everyone as equal under God, but failing to hide their blatant sexism and preference for the husband. They give off the impression that they possess God-given authority, but reveal themselves to be at the willful mercy of Elisha just as much a Viviane is because everyone believes that it is the husband who should possess all the power over his life and the life of his wife.
Despite Viviane’s growing case against Elisha and the unhappiness she has endured being his spouse, it is the tight-lipped Elisha who is consistently seen as the ideal husband and Viviane the ungrateful wife. When the rabbis demand witnesses in order to find “grounds” for a divorce, it’s the male witnesses who are seen as more valid than the females. In fact, Viviane’s own testimony isn’t heard until the very end of the movie. Before that, she and her integrity are spoken for by a slew of friends, family and acquaintances who happily provide their opinions and advice on the private lives of this couple. It should be noted that all of them agree that Viviane is better off staying married to Elisha, but while the men’s reasoning for this have to do with what they consider is a woman’s place, the women who speak on Viviane’s behalf opt for it because it’s a far easier life being an unhappily married woman than a happily divorced one.
It isn’t until the conclusion of the movie when the unfairness of the whole situation is most vividly illustrated. In a crucial and heartbreaking scene, Viviane bursts into an emotional soliloquy in which she begs the court to see her for a change and challenges the rabbinical court, pointing out its shameless discrimination against women and failure to be fair and impartial. The scene is so powerful and so perfectly sums up the agony of being a woman, especially in countries like Israel, that anyone with an ounce of humanity could be brought to shuddering tears watching it. You cannot look away from Viviane’s face even though it’s painful to see the frustration, torment and lifelong suffering present there, but it’s extremely important to see these things because it reminds us that there is still such a long way to go before feminism actually becomes an outdated movement.
There is still so much work to do, so many obstacles to overcome just to have women seen as humans. Gett reminds us all that while women in the Western world may have won many privileges over the years, feminism isn’t for some women, it’s for all women everywhere. And until every single one of them is allowed the same rights as their male counterparts, feminism is indispensable.