Potential Space

by Jane Reingold, MA
The establishing shot unceremoniously throws us, seemingly mid-scene, into a confined, run-down Israeli rabbinic courtroom, a claustrophobic setting with men discussing an appeal for a divorce by Viviane, the protagonist. And yet she is missing from the frame, as if she is absent, irrelevant, beside the point. This subtle device sets the tone for the film and speaks to the tenor of the marriage and of the courtroom proceeding -- there is room for only one subjectivity.
Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem is a feminist Israeli film depicting the heart-wrenching, patriarchal practice of rendering a religious bill of divorce, agett. This process accords the husband, in this case Elisha, the ultimate power to grant or refuse a divorce appeal. Without a civil alternative, Viviane is at the mercy of her husband and the presiding rabbis. She is on trial, as if she alone were culpable for a failed marriage.
This film is a political, social, and feminist commentary on this misogynistic practice, but it is also a depiction of the end of a 20-year marriage, a poignant portrait of a high-conflict couple. For Elisha, the prolongation of the process is perhaps an attempt to maintain contact through conflict and to fend off separation anxiety and feelings of grief, to mitigate loss. And perhaps Viviane's almost masochistic submission to the process is a reflection of her own guilt for leaving the marriage, her penance. Perhaps she is seeking closure, a sanctioned way to leave the relationship in which loss is allayed by a sense that some of the good was acknowledged and retained, that all was not destroyed. Maybe her submission indicates a desire for depressive-level mourning together and for preservation of what was good.
As we do when couples are in our consulting rooms, we hold hope as we watch Viviane and Elisha that, as Argentinean psychoanalyst Roberto Lossowrote, "each member [will] carry the complicated process of withdrawing the cathexis deposited in the partner, in the marriage, and in the family structure in order to re-introject what has been deposited in the object, in the link, and in the ego, and to reinvest cathexis in new hopes and expectations."
The film leaves us with some of this hope as Elisha and Viviane come to an untenable yet resolute agreement. Viviane sits for a moment, pensively gazing out onto the residential street, the first glimpse we have of the outside world, of freedom, of a potential new future. We feel the weight of the moment with her as we then follow her feet back into the courtroom.