It has been a long and unpredictable journey but, for the moment, Ronit and Shlomi Elkabetz can rest.
For 10 years, the siblings have been working on the trilogy of films they co-wrote and directed and which starred Ronit — “To Take a Wife” (2004), “Seven Days” (2008) and “Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem” (2014), the last of which opens theatrically on Friday, Feb. 13. They’ve done other things as well during that time. Indeed, Ronit is one of the busiest actresses in cinema, working regularly in Israel and France, and Shlomi directed a striking political film, “Edut,” which focused on the second intifada.
But the story of Viviane Amsalem, the protagonist of the trilogy, has been foremost in their minds the whole time. After all, she started life as their mother.
Or, rather, the character in the first film of the trilogy was inspired by their mother, a woman of great determination and strength, two qualities that she obviously passed on to her offspring.
“It’s not her biography,” Shlomi says. “But it’s our point of view on her life. We presented our story and our background, our Mizrahi background,” he says, referring to Jews from Arab lands. “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.”
Gradually, he explains, they drifted away from their family’s personal story, “and became more political and social in our storytelling.” In the second film the focus is on Viviane’s interaction with the extended family, her own and her husband’s. In the new film, we see her and husband Eliyahu (Simon Abkarian) in a socio-political setting, the divorce court in which their battle will drag on for five years.
“Our role is not only to make films, but to represent this reality that isn’t presented [on screen],” Shlomi says. “So the later films became more politically aware and left out some of the personal story in favor of the story of the place we come from, Israel.”
The genius of “Gett” is that the Elkabetzes have found a way of storytelling that actually gives the personal story plenty of room to breathe. As in the first two films, there is an abundance of deadpan humor and moments of great pain. There is also a quantum leap in the assurance and subtlety of the filmmaking, which was pretty good already.
“Every movie we make we approach it thinking, ‘How can we create a special cinematic language that is unique and truthful,’” Ronit says through her brother’s translation. “We try to focus on the specific story. Here the challenge was to tell a painful story without leaving the courtroom, to be intimate and political and social without infringing on the narrative itself.”
The situation of the courtroom presented the answer.
“Our first observation about the courts was that it’s not objective, there is no objectivity,” Shlomi says. “Everything is told from someone’s point of view; there’s no one outside that point of view to give it objectivity. So we created a cinematic language that would reflect that. We don’t use a master shot; the camera is always situated where one of the characters would be, so you are always seeing things from someone’s specific perspective. The result was that we created a silent dialogue between the characters, a dialogue that wasn’t in the script. It’s about what isn’t being said, about who is looking at who, what is felt within the four walls of the courtroom.”
They also constructed their scenes around long takes with no camera movement, with dual results: The audience must concentrate on those silent interactions and emotional currents that develop in real time, and the audience must feel the claustrophobic “no-exit” nature of the legal confrontation.
Over the course of a decade and three movies, Viviane has undergone obvious changes, climbing out from under the rigid social structures of her community and seeking an independent existence beyond her marriage.
Asked if she has experienced change and growth over the three films, Ronit readily acknowledges, in English, “I was changed a lot. We had to pass all the way with her to understand what is going on, where we want to go. 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, there is murmuring between the two siblings, and then she continues — “I can’t make a movie that doesn’t offer me a chance to grow spiritually and emotionally. I won’t do it.”
With that requirement in mind, the Elkabetzes won’t consider this a farewell to Viviane.
“We could make another 15 films about Viviane,” Shlomi says, laughing. “She’s always progressing and we grow with her. The next step is how will she live as a free woman?”
Ronit adds, “We don’t know when we will do that. We’re thinking about different subjects. We will see. We need a few weeks just to realize what has happened,” a reference to the film taking the Ophir Award, the Israeli equivalent of the Oscar, for best picture.
To Viviane and to them.
“Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsallem,” written and directed by Shlomi and Ronit Elkabetz, opens on Friday, Feb. 13 at Lincoln Plaza Cinema (1886 Broadway). For information call (212) 757-0359 or go to lincolnplazacinema.com.