The sky is a wintry grey when Ronit (Rachel Weisz), a photographer, arrives in London, recalled to her hometown from New York by the death of her father, a local rabbi. The Orthodox Jewish community to which she returns dresses sombrely, in shades of black, and comports itself strictly. Dovid (Alessandro Nivola), a childhood friend and her father’s protégé, steps away from Ronit when, impulsively, she tries to hug him on the doorstep of the family home. Everything in Disobedience feels solemn, and looks it, too, from the cigarette breaks that signal Ronit’s tacit rebellion against the tenets of her upbringing, to the kiss that revivifies a long-suppressed romance between Ronit and her first love Esti (Rachel McAdams), who is now married to Dovid.
Though the film’s Hasidic setting may be a rarity on screen, the basic tale of Disobedience – a free-spirited woman defies censure – is familiar, not least to the director, Chilean filmmaker Sebastián Lelio. Lelio’s breakthrough feature, Gloria (2013), starred Paulina García as the titular character, a divorced woman in her late fifties who grabs a second chance at life on her own terms. (Gloria is currently slated for an English-language remake, directed by Lelio, with Julianne Moore in the title role.) A Fantastic Woman (2017), the first Chilean picture to win an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, centred on Marina (Daniela Vega), a young transgender woman who is shunned by the family of her late partner when he dies suddenly of an aneurysm, but who refuses to be cowed.
Disobedience, too, dwells on sudden bereavement and its aftermath. In the opening scene, Ronit’s father, Rav Krushka (Antony Lester), topples over while delivering a sermon on the subject of free will. Human beings, he had been in the midst of saying, are ‘the only beings with the power to disobey’. The film is like this throughout: a little obvious in its messaging of subtext, and a touch too schematic in its narrative architecture. Though the details of her exile take some time to emerge, we sense immediately that Ronit, with her uncovered hair and above-the-knee skirts, will prove an agent of disruption in this conservative world. Esti, too, is of a type, being outwardly dutiful and inwardly disquiet. The course of their affair feels both inevitable and predictable: at first explosive, then agonised; a private tumult which quickly implicates the community at large.
Lelio’s real strength is as a director of actors. Daniela Vega carried A Fantastic Woman with an indomitable performance in the lead role, and here, both Weisz and McAdams are committed and convincing. Weisz is an intuitive yet disciplined performer, whose emotions in any given scene are deeply felt but never indulgent. Her often sorrowful role in Disobedience recalls her part in Terence Davies’ sublime filmic adaptation of Terence Rattigan’s stage play The Deep Blue Sea (2011), which also concerned a love triangle. Disobedience is not as singular a film as that, but Weisz is always impressive, if almost always cast in these sort of deadly earnest roles that obscure what I suspect is a naturally dry wit.
McAdams, herself better known for comedic parts, is also strong, but the script gives her less to work with. For all of Lelio’s attention to the tangible rituals and practices of Orthodox life – and he has clearly done his research – his film lacks real curiosity as to the inner workings of faith. Esti is devoted to her religion and to her marriage in a way that seems inexplicable; inexplicable because Lelio never really demonstrates what, apart from propriety, keeps her tied to a way of life that requires her sexuality – which she is quite cognisant of – to be always severely repressed. Esti teaches at a Jewish girls’ school; there is a brief scene where she watches, through the classroom window, as her students sing a hymn. McAdams’s expression offers a glimpse of a woman whose beliefs clearly bring her more than a feeling of having fulfilled her obligations – she looks peaceable and wary, joyous and conflicted all at once. More of that exploration would have been welcome, but it never comes.
Still, Lelio does avoid making religious believers into easy villains. The film includes no flashbacks, but, through dialogue, a sense emerges of the late Rav as a leader whose sternness has left a legacy of mixed emotions, and who perhaps loved his estranged daughter more deeply than he could admit to. Dovid, who begins as the patriarchal heir, proves complex and expansive in his loyalties; the climactic scene takes place at synagogue, and hinges on Dovid’s own interpretation of his late mentor’s unfinished discourse upon free will. It feels like the film’s natural conclusion, but the scene is followed by a coda which, after the emotional restraint that has come before, is unnecessarily sentimental.
Disobedience (Roadshow Films), 114 minutes, directed by Sebastián Lelio, from the novel by Naomi Alderman. In cinemas 14 June 2018.
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