There are several key shots in movies—the visual strategies directors and cinematographers and editors use to establish scene, mood, movement, and dramatic tension, guiding the viewer’s eye to important information.
There’s the master, in which the entire scene is filmed at a distance, with all the actors together in the same setting (akin to watching a play from the fourth row center in the orchestra). The wide shot creates the overall atmosphere. The establishing shot alerts the viewer that the story has moved to a new setting with a picture of that new setting. The tracking shot follows characters as they move. The middle shot places an individual character in the center of the frame with the setting clearly evident, so we see her in context. And of course, there’s the close-up, which zooms in on a particular actor’s face and provides the intimacy the other major shots lack.
We’ve grown so used to the ways directors cross-cut between these shots that when a movie largely dispenses with them, and makes use of only one or two, that movie seems avant-garde, experimental, or a kind of trick. Thus, the Oscar-winning Birdman, which tries to make you think you’re watching something unfold in real time in a single take (and which I hated). Or one of these “found footage” horror movies, in which everything is made up of scenes supposedly filmed by camcorders or iPhones or in group conversations on Skype. Such efforts require an almost exhausting degree of visual invention within the frame for them not to get monotonous or static.
So directors who consciously limit the shots they use in a movie take a serious creative risk. Most fail. But not all. The most recent such radical experiment, aside from Birdman, is an extraordinary Israeli film called Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem. This may be the first movie (certainly the only movie I can remember) composed almost exclusively of medium shots and close-ups. It is set inside a courtroom and in the narrow hallways and anterooms just outside; we see the street only twice during its 90 minutes. And yet it takes place over the course of nearly six years as we watch a court called a bet din preside over an endless and ruinous divorce proceeding. The directorial method takes what might otherwise have been a standard-issue courtroom melodrama and turns it into something almost unbearably intimate and tense.
Israeli civil law follows Jewish religious law, according to which the only way a divorce can be granted is if the husband consents. Viviane and Elisha, Orthodox Jews, have been married for 30 years and have been locked in a horrendous emotional war for 20 of those years. She no longer lives with Elisha because she has moved to a shed behind their house. She cannot move on with her life, she cannot associate with other men, and she cannot marry another man or she will be shunned by her community. The bet din cannot compel Elisha to sign the document, but it can punish him for refusing to do so, if he is acting vindictively, through civil penalties that include asset forfeiture and jail. When the court does this, and he still refuses, Viviane becomes an agunah, a “chained woman,” imprisoned in a failed marriage with no means of escape.
Gett is the work of a brother-sister writing-directing team, Shlomi and Ronit Elkabetz. Ronit, who is the Meryl Streep of Israel, plays Viviane. This is the third film the Elkabetzes have made about Viviane and Elisha, who are based on their own parents. And while the film is clearly (and appropriately) a plea for the rights of Israeli women, they do not take the easy way out. Elisha is not a monster; he is a calm and steady and well-liked man who is deeply in love with Viviane. But he is rigid and cold: He will cut off a friend of decades for a momentary slight, and he will treat his beloved wife as though she is invisible for simply wanting to socialize, go out to eat, or go dancing every once in a while.
This is a very rich and riveting piece of work, in part because the suffocating medium-shot/close-up style chosen by the Elkabetzes creates an almost-perfect analogue to the way in which the Amsalem marriage and the process of seeking the gett (the Hebrew word for “divorce”) is suffocating Viviane. It begins to suffocate the lawyers and the judges of the bet din as well, as Elisha’s stubbornness and Viviane’s iron determination take a toll on them all. Gett, the movie that keeps us uncomfortably close, is one of the screen’s great dramas of divorce.
John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is The Weekly Standard’s movie critic.