Sebastian Lelio's sensitive, multifaceted adaptation of Naomi Alderman's novel is a beautiful exploration of the restrictive nature of traditional communities, anchored by a trio of heart-stopping performances.
Chilean director Sebastián Lelio is a master of arthouse empathy – his Oscar-winning film A Fantastic Woman, about the struggles of a trans woman to assert her place in the life of her dead lover amongst his homophobic family, was a triumph not only of LGBT representation, but of delicate, gripping filmmaking. His latest, Disobedience, is his first English-language film, but none of that humanism is lost in translation.
Based on the novel by Naomi Alderman, Disobedience is set in London’s restrictive Orthodox Jewish community, a people mired in tradition, restriction, and a deep commitment to old ways of thinking. During a sermon about God’s differentiation of man from the rest of His creations by granting him the gift of choice, Rav Kruschka (Anton Lesser) falls and drops dead, prompting his daughter Ronit (Rachel Weisz) to return home.
You see, Ronit was exiled from the community as a teenager for engaging in a passionate same-sex fling with Esti (Rachel McAdams); now free, Ronit grows into a successful, stylish New York photographer confident in her sexuality. Esti, meanwhile, atoned for her sins and married Rav’s protégé Dovid (Alessandro Nivola), fulfilling the demands of her community by entering a loveless marriage of convenience.
Needless to say, Ronit’s return to the community is a powder keg of religious tension and raw nerves, and it’s this palpable drama that Lelio excels in. The elders treat Ronit with a patronizing half-acceptance (chiefly in the name of respecting her father), every remark to her a cruel mix of condescension, strained patience and no small amount of regret. Meanwhile, Esti does her best to maintain her standing as a good, honest wife to Dovid; Before long, however, Esti and Ronit are drawn together like they were in their youth, rekindling a passionate affair that liberates them both from the community’s vice-like grip, if only in fleeting moments.
Between this and A Fantastic Woman, Lelio has shown a tremendous affinity for films that understand the ways marginalized people (especially LGBT folk) suffer in communities that don’t tolerate them. Disobedience isn’t as bold and flashy as Fantastic Woman, but it doesn’t need to be; the grim, overcast London sky (ominously executed by cinematographer Danny Cohen) serves as a potent backdrop for the pall that hangs over these characters. Every detail of the Jewish homes and synagogues that comprise the community is lovingly rendered, giving the feel of a community stuck in old ways and unwilling to change, even when the people within them struggle for air.
Instead of following a bold mistress of her destiny in A Fantastic Woman’s Daniela Vega, Disobedience shows us the misery of people who haven’t yet learned to shine as brightly. And when they do (as evidenced in a revelatory love scene between McAdams and Weisz in a hotel room) it feels positively transcendent. That scene is a particular highlight, deftly avoiding the kind of voyeuristic gaze that mars similar erotic rendezvouses in other films. This isn’t for the audience’s enjoyment; this is for theirs – we just happen to be looking in. It’s liberating more than titillating, which is quite the accomplishment. Erotic arthouse dramatists should look at Disobedience and take all the notes; this is the way to do it well.
At the heart of Disobedience’s drama is its unforgettable trio of protagonists. While the story seems like it would be Ronit’s alone to tell, Lelio effortlessly transitions between Ronit, Esti and Dovid in equal measure, each of them getting their own moments of realization. Weisz eases us into the story from an outsider’s perspective, introducing us to the rhythms of the Orthodox community and the way it clashes with Weisz’s dry wit and endearing cynicism. When she rekindles her love affair with Esti, Lelio turns the camera to McAdams, impeccably capturing her unique brand of emotional torture as she betrays her faith for what she really wants. Then, surprisingly, we get to find out what Dovid thinks about all this, and his responses take the film in unexpected, cathartic directions.
More than that, Disobedience offers a window into a community that, by design, is relatively cut off from the rest of the world. Orthodox Jewish communities live their lives in relative isolation, leaving those outside unaware of the inner workings of their society while concomitantly restricting themselves from social progress. While this is certainly a bit of a blanket statement, Disobedience presents a hint at what happens when civilizations refuse to catch up to the rest of the world, and treats progress and tolerance as betrayals of God’s word.
The lesson Lelio teaches us through Ronit, Esti and Dovid is that such strict religious and social customs harm everyone involved – even those who ostensibly benefit from them. The only solution, then, is to open ourselves up to love, life and the ability to choose our path. In Disobedience, we find a layered, lovingly crafted sermon on this subject – not just in the rabbinical speeches that bookend the film, but the compelling drama in between.
Disobedience comes to Chicago theaters on May 4th.