Between 2004 and 2014, the siblings Ronit and Shlomi Elkabetz directed a trilogy about a Jewish woman’s inability to escape a miserable marriage because of patriarchal divorce laws. Ronit Elkabetz, who also starred in the films, died of lung cancer in 2016. Could Cahiers Noirs (Black Notebooks), finished in 2021, be considered their fourth collaboration?

The documentary is Shlomi Elkabetz’s moving tribute to the one who went away and the ones who are left behind. It weaves together footage of his older sister shot over the years, clips from the trilogy, and interviews with his parents. Ronit Elkabetz is a vivid and vivacious presence throughout, actively guiding the shooting process and participating in her own memorialisation.

Cahiers Noirs is showing at the International Film Festival of Rotterdam (January 26-February 6).

Cahiers Noirs (2021). Courtesy Deux Beaux Garcons.

Before she turned director, Ronit Elkabetz acted in several Israeli and French productions (including A Late Marriage and The Band’s Visit). An unforgettable presence with her waist-length hair, stunning beauty and brilliant acting skills, she was acclaimed in her own country as well as in Europe.

In addition to their individual projects, the siblings wrote and directed three films based on their parents. To Take a Wife (2004), Shiva (2008) and Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem (2014) provided a memorable portrait of womanhood and traditional Israeli society. Ronit Elkabetz played Viviane Amsalem, based largely on her mother.

In Cahiers Noirs, the lines between personal and professional space are blurred to the point of erasure. Clips from the three films showcase Ronit Elkabetz’s histrionic heft as well as the professional symmetry between the siblings. They shared an apartment in Paris for years even after Ronit Elkabetz got married and gave birth to twins.

The trilogy itself drew heavily from events in the lives of the senior Elkabetzes. A section of the documentary is devoted to the reaction of Miriam and Eli Elkabetz to having their lives fictionalised for cinema. Cahiers Noirs is discomfiting in its intimacy at times and self-lacerating in the way that personal documentaries tend to be. No more attacks, Miriam Elkabetz tells her son, who keeps filming away nevertheless.

At 218 minutes, the film could arguably have been shorter. But who are we to stand in the way of a director working through unfathomable grief and an irreplaceable loss?

The love that underpins the project – the love of a brother for his sister – ultimately proves to be hypnotic. Shlomi Elkabetz smoothly meshes home video footage, behind-the-scenes moments and poetic passages of himself and his sister at home and on the sets.

The shoot of Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem is revelatory, given that Ronit Elkabetz had already begun battling the illness that would eventually consume her. Struggling with her lines and arguing over retakes and rehearsals, the actress nevertheless rises to the occasion to deliver one of the finest performances of her tragically truncated career.

Cahiers Noirs (2021).