[update below] [2nd update below] [3rd update below]
She died today, at age 51. Cancer. I was shocked, as I had no idea. She was Israel’s leading actress, well-known in France, and one of my favorites (of any nationality). She was terrific. I saw her in eleven films, almost all good—with the best being the 2007 The Band’s Visit (in France: La Visite de la fanfare). I love this movie. She also co-directed (with her brother, Shlomi) three very good films—a trilogy, in which she had the lead role—two in the last decade: To Take a Wife (Prendre Femme) and The Seven Days (Les Sept jours), which, entre autres, are almost ethnographic in their depiction of Moroccan Jewish sub-culture in Israel.
The third part of the trilogy, Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem (in France: Le Procès de Viviane Amsalem), came out in 2014. It is entirely set in a rabbinical court room in Israel, with the protag, Viviane (Elkabetz’s character, who is loosely modeled after her own mother), seeking a divorce—gett, in Hebrew—from her husband, Elisha (Simon Abkarian), from whom she is separated, can no longer stand, and doesn’t want to even try patching things up with. She wants a divorce, period. But as personal status in Israel—as in majority Islamic countries, Turkey and Tunisia excepted—is governed by religious law, she has to seek the divorce in a rabbinical law court, presided by three rabbinical judges. Husband Elisha refuses the divorce—and only he can grant it—and the rabbis take his side, at least initially, so she is constrained to remain married to the man she loathes. The entire two-hour film is of Viviane’s judicial nightmare and which lasts five years, of her and her lawyer trying to persuade three rabbis, who are no more sympathetic to the woman’s plight than would be any qadi in a Shari’a law court. It’s a gripping film, though seemed interminable after a certain point—it just goes on and on—but which was certainly deliberate on the Elkabetzs’ part, for the spectator to feel the exasperation of the wife with the interminability of the divorce proceeding—Jewish halakha law, objectively speaking, being archaic and retrograde when it comes to such a matter (for an elaboration on the subject, see the interview with Ronit and Shlomi Elkabetz in The New Republic, “In Israeli divorce, ‘the man has all the power’;” an opinion piece in The Jerusalem Post by rabbinical court advocate and attorney Osnat Sharon, “When film and reality meet;” and an article by Adam Janofsky in Tablet on “chained wives” refused Jewish divorces by their husbands).
Le Monde’s Middle East grand reporter Christophe Ayad posted on social media today a portrait of Ronit Elkabetz he published in Libération in September 2009. And writer Ayelet Tsabari has a piece in the Forward today on “How Ronit Elkabetz gave Mizrahi women like me permission to dream big.”
UPDATE: Haaretz has a tribute to Ronit Elkabetz with this lede: “In the span of only 25 years, Elkabetz grew to become one of the most respected Israeli creators, pushing Sephardi women to the cinematic forefront.” Accompanying the tribute is a one-minute video on her life and career.
2nd UPDATE: In an interview in Le Monde in 2007, Ronit Elkabetz had this to say about Israel and Arabs:
Je fais donc partie des deux peuples, Israël et Palestine, depuis toujours et pour toujours. La culture arabe est dans nos veines, dans notre cuisine, notre musique et notre langue. Les gens qui le nient sont loin du réel.
Pour l’info, Elkabetz was opposed to the occupation. N.B. her role in Michal Aviad’s film ‘Invisible’, which I posted on three years ago.
3rd UPDATE: Le Point has an article (May 1st) by its Jerusalem correspondent, “Les Rabbins et le divorce,” in which the film ‘Gett’ is discussed.