The award-winning Israeli actress Ronit Elkabetz died Tuesday at age 51, following a prolonged battle with cancer.
Her death followed two years of a career high, as her film, “Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem,” co-directed with her brother Shlomi Amsalem, won Israel’s 2014 Ophir award for best film and was selected as the Israeli entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the 87th Academy Awards (although it was not nominated). “Gett” was also nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 72nd Golden Globe Awards in 2015.
Elkabetz, a dramatically beautiful woman with a head of jet-black hair, played the main role of Viviane Amsalem in the film, the third in a trilogy telling the story of an unhappy marriage. The Elkabetz siblings also co-wrote and -directed the first two films in the trilogy, “To Take a Wife” (2004) and “Shiva” (2008).
The older sister of three brothers, Elkabetz told The New Republic in an interview that she always wanted to work with Shlomi, and was “just waiting for to him grow up a bit.”
The two worked together for a decade telling the fictional story of the Amsalems, who have been married for more than twenty years. The third movie, “Gett,” takes place in the rabbinical courts, where Viviane Amsalem is trying to obtain a get, a religious divorce, from her estranged husband.
Scriptwriting and directing was a later development in Elkabetz’s career, which was nearly constantly split between Israel and France after she moved to Paris in 1997. At the time, she ended up in Ariane Mnouchkine’s Theatre du Soleil while supporting herself as a waitress.
She didn’t speak any French, a fact reported many times over, but was chosen by Mnouchkine to be her acting intern, one of several strokes of luck that came her way during that period.
“There is something here waiting for me that I need to learn,” Elkabetz said, reflecting on her move to France in Nir Bergman’s 2010 documentary film, “A Stranger in Paris,” about Elkabetz’s life and career.
French was always a familiar language to Elkabetz, having grown up hearing it spoken by her Moroccan parents, alongside Arabic.
The daughter of a hairdresser and postal employee, Elkabetz never studied acting and was working as a model when she snagged her first role in “The Intended” (1990) with Shuli Rand, an Israeli actor perhaps best known for later becoming ultra-Orthodox, but who was Elkabetz’s partner for several years.
Elkabetz won her first Ophir award for “Sh’Chur” (1994) and wrote her first script “Scar” with Haim Buzaglo.
Her French career as an actress took off in 2001, when she starred in “Origine controlee,” the same year she won her second Ophir for her role as Judith, the Israeli divorcee dating a Georgian Jewish man in the award-winning Israel film “Late Marriage.”
Elkabetz also starred in two Israeli drama series, “Franco and Spector” and “Parashat HaShavua,” while working with her brother on their trilogy starting in 2004.
Elkabetz’s third Ophir Award was for her role in the 2007 comic drama “The Band’s Visit,” in which she played the role of cafe owner Dina, who invites a visiting Egyptian band to stay in her home in a small Negev town.
Her French film work continued, including 2009’s “La Fille dur Rer,” in which Elkabetz starred alongside Catherine Deneuve.
Elkabetz was born far from Tel Aviv, where she would eventually live, most recently with her architect husband, Avner Yasher, and their three-year-old twins. She was born in the downtrodden “D” neighborhood of Beersheba, and raised in the northern town Kiryat Yam, the oldest sister to three younger brothers.
Elkabetz strictly guarded her privacy when it came to her health, merely commenting that she wanted a change when asked about her shorn head at the 2015 Golden Globes Awards. In other photos taken during the same period, she appears to be wearing a wig.
But in the 2010 documentary “A Stranger in Paris,” she allowed Bergman to remove certain walls and invade her fiercely held privacy.
According to a description written about the documentary by Jordana Horn in The Forward, “Elkabetz cries intermittently, the luminosity of her striking face growing dim beneath her apologetic hands and her wind-strewn hair. And then some French people walk by and recognize her. ‘You’re amazing,’ they tell her. Suddenly, the light is on again, full blast, shining onto the audience, which has made her what she is in a movie life that is a playground of acceptance. ‘Thank you,’ she says, in a perfect performance of grace.'”
The public will be able to pay their respects to Elkabetz, who will be lying in state in her closed coffin on Wednesday, April 20, from 11 a.m. to 1 a.m., in front of the Tel Aviv Cinematheque. Her funeral will be held at the Kiryat Shaul cemetery at 3 p.m.