Back in the winter of 2015, I closed an interview with Shlomi and Ronit Elkabetz by asking them if their film, “Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem,” represented a farewell to the eponymous central character whose familial troubles had carried through a trilogy of singular intensity and nuance.
“We could make another 15 films about Viviane,” Shlomi said, laughing. “She’s always progressing, and we grow with her. The next step is how will she live as a free woman?”
Sadly, we will never have the opportunity to answer that question. On April 19, Ronit died in Tel Aviv, after a long battle with cancer, at 51.
Elkabetz began her career as a model, making her film debut in 1990 in Daniel Wachsmann’s “The Appointed.” But for American audiences and critics, it was her astonishing turn as the spurned lover in Dover Kosashvili’s “Late Marriage” 11 years later that impressed her on our cinematic consciousness. Playing that bitterly disappointed divorcee, she won the Ophir (Israeli equivalent of the Academy Award) as best actress, the second of three victories, alongside four other nominations. (She won the nod as supporting actress for 1994’s “White Magic” and her third statuette as the lead in “The Band’s Visit” in 2007.
Elkabetz enjoyed a successful career in French film as well, but it was an Israeli actress, writer and director that she received the most acclaim, much of it for the three films she co-directed and wrote with her brother Shlomi, and in which she played Viviane Amsalem.
Viviane began her fictional life as a thinly disguised version of the duo’s mother. Elkabetz’s real-life inspiration was, like Viviane, a Moroccan Jew who was a trained hairdresser, and a hard-working and determined woman who raised her children with a firm but sympathetic hand, as depicted in “To Take a Wife” (2004) “Seven Days” (2008) and “Gett.”
“It’s not her biography,” Shlomi said in 2015. “But it’s our point of view on her life. We presented our story and our background, our Mizrahi background. There has been little representation of this milieu in Israeli film. This was our mission, to present that and the situation of women in our society.”
Perhaps inevitably, the siblings drifted away from their family’s personal story, “and became more political and social in our storytelling,” he noted. In the second film the focus is on Viviane’s interaction with the extended family, her own and her husband’s. In the last film, we see her and husband Eliyahu (Simon Abkarian) in a socio-political setting: the divorce court in which their battle drags on for five years.
Ronit’s work in all three films and, indeed, her performances in “Or (My Treasure)” and “The Band’s Visit,” to mention two more among many, deftly runs through a wide range of emotional states. She can be tempestuous like Anna Magnani, to whom she always seemed a spiritual sibling, another in a long line of impassioned Mediterranean earth mothers. Yet she was capable of a wry, ironic humor that often turns coruscating in the trilogy, and a wounded tenderness that shines through her comic turn in “The Band’s Visit.” Although she was a charismatic presence that always commanded an audience’s attention, she was a self-effacing actress who could reflect her starlight onto younger players like Dana Ivgy in “Or,” Reuven Badalov and Ofer Hayun in “Zion and His Brother” (2009), and Yoav Rotman and Michael Moshonov in “Mabul” (2010).
In each of those films she plays the mother of the younger performers, each of them as different and yet as clearly related to one another as the evolving Viviane Amsalem.
When I asked her how tracing that character’s trajectory over nearly a decade had affected her, she answered, “I was changed a lot.” We had to understand, so we did a lot of work besides the filmmaking. And for me there is no… she struggles to find an equivalent for a Hebrew phrase.
“I can’t make a movie that doesn’t offer me a chance to grow spiritually and emotionally. I won’t do it.”