Elkabetz, Ronit: Multi-Talented Star-Director of Israel Film Industry, Dies at 51

5frte5rjicmIt is with great regret that I have to report that Ronit Elkabetz, one of the major, multi-talented figures of Israeli film industry, died April 19, after battle with cancer. She was 51.

I have interviewed Ronit several times at the Cannes Film Fest, which premiered two of her best-known screen roles: Late Marriage in 2001 and The Band’s Visit in 2007.  On both occasions, she proved to be friendly, bright, and sharp in the observations she provided about her films and her career.

The actress and filmmaker was known for her striking dark looks, considerable dramatic range, and emotional vulnerability onscreen.

Her life ended just as her career reached a peak: In 2014, Elkabetz’s film Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem, which she co-wrote and co-directed with her brother Shlomi Elkabetz, was awarded the Israeli Ophir Award for best film (Israel’s Oscars).

Gett served as Israel’s 2014 entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards, and also earned a nomination for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2015 Golden Globes (which I vote for).

Trilogy of Femme-Centered Films

“Gett” was the third installment in a trilogy about a woman trapped in an unhappy marriage. The Elkabetz siblings began telling the story of Viviane Amsalem, which stunned Israeli and international viewers with its searing take on the injustices of Israeli rabbinical law, in the 2004 picture To Take A Wife, which they followed up in 2008 with Seven Days.

Ronit Elkabetz was born in the southern Israeli town of Beersheba in 1964 to Moroccan immigrant parents. The eldest of four siblings, she spoke both Arabic and French in her working-class home. Blessed with dark (jet-black) hair and pale skin, which made her looks quite striking, she began her career as an Israeli fashion model.

Surprisingly, considering her wide range of talents and skills, Ronit had never studied acting.  In 1990 she took her first lead role in Israel, starring in “The Intended” alongside actor Shuli Rand, who would become her longtime partner.  Rand, best known for making  Ushpizin, later became ultra-Orthodox.

Three years later, she earned her first Israeli Ophir Award for her turn as Pnina in the 1994 family drama “Sh’Chur.”

In 1997, Elkabetz moved to Paris to study at the avant-garde stage ensemble Theatre du Soleil. She supported herself by working as a waitress, and in 2001, she earned her Parisian big break when she starred in the French film “Origine controlee.”

Dual Life: Paris and Tel-Aviv
That role marked the beginning of Elkabetz’s dual French-Israeli career, and over the course of the next decade, she split her life between Paris and Tel Aviv.

Late Marriage:

Elkabetz won another Ophir Award in Israel, this time for what remains one of her most enduring roles – as Judith in “Late Marriage,” a divorcee and single mother locked in an affair with a Georgian-Israeli PhD student (Lior Ashkenazi) trapped between his love for her and his parents’ insistence on a traditional arranged marriage.

“Late Marriage” was a critical smash in Israel, earned a screening in Un Certain Regard at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival, and established Elkabetz as Israel’s preeminent actress of her generation.

Between 2001 and 2009, Elkabetz played several complex roles: an aging prostitute struggling to raise her teenage daughter in “Or: My Treasure” (2004); as the heroine restaurant owner in “The Band’s Visit” (2007); and a narcissistic mother oblivious to the strugglers of her own family in “Jaffa” (2009).

Or: Camera d’Or Winner

“Or” earned the Camera d’Or and the Grand Prize Prix Regards Jeune Award for Best Feature at that year’s Cannes Film Festival, and the critically-acclaimed “The Band’s Visit” won eight Israeli Ophir Awards and was initially submitted as the nation’s entry for Best Foreign Film before being swapped, due to a ruling over too much English dialogue, for “Beaufort.”

Elkabetz’s versatility, beauty and magnetism prompted the New York Times, in 2008, to dub her “Israel’s Meryl Streep.”

In the same decade, Elkabetz also branched out as a screenwriter and director, launching the Viviane Amsalem trilogy alongside her younger brother.

Her battle with cancer was not exactly a secret. She was seen over the past year wearing a series of wigs, and walked the red carpet at the 72nd Golden Globe Awards in a floor-length black gown and a buzz cut. But she did not comment on her illness, and news of her death Tuesday morning was shocking to many, in and out.

In 2015, Elkabetz presided over Cannes Fest’s Critics Week.

Former Israeli President Shimon Peres called the multi-hyphenate “an extraordinary cultural ambassador for the state of Israel,” adding that “on the various stages of the world, Ronit represented the citizens of Israel with great pride, creativity and beauty.”

Sign of how love: her coffin will be displayed at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque on Wednesday, and the public is invited to file past in mourning, before her funeral Wednesday at Israel’s Kiryat Shaul cemetery.

Elkabetz is survived by her husband, the architect Avner Yashar and three-year-old twins.