Disobedience, the English language debut for Oscar winning Chilean filmmaker Sebastián Lelio, is a restrained, exceptionally acted, and nuanced character study, but also a slight step back for him in terms of difficulty and effectiveness. A look at a secret, taboo love between two women born into Orthodox Judaism, Disobedience offers up plenty of spiritual and moral food for thought, but this adaptation of Naomi Alderman’s novel presents it all in a straightforward, no frills manner. That could be a side effect of the film’s setting, but while the drama comes through, it never hits as hard as it probably should. What should feel gut wrenching instead comes across as mildly inconvenient for everyone involved.
New York photographer Ronit Krushka (Rachel Weisz) reluctantly returns to the Orthodox Jewish community in London where she grew up, following the death of her estranged Rabbi father. Although she feels awkward returning home after leading as secular and sinful a life as possible, she agrees to stick around for a few days to settle any matters pertaining to her late father’s estate. Although she’s shunned and shamed by some of the community’s most devout, she’s invited to stay with her father’s closest student, Dovid (Alessandro Nivola), and his wife, Esti (Rachel McAdams). Both are former friends of Ronit’s, and both are still miffed at how she packed up and left town in a hurry, especially Esti, who once had a romantic fling with Ronit and still harbours a deep, unspoken affection for her.
Director and co-writer Lelio (Gloria, last year’s Best Foreign Film Oscar winner A Fantastic Woman) breaks from his normally stylish approach to filmmaking in favour of something a lot more demure. Outside of a few clever camera angles that play nicely with light and reflections, Disobedience looks curiously plain, potentially as a reflection of the community the story is set in. The only real behind the camera flourish that’s obvious or notable throughout is Matthew Herbert’s soaring, sometimes inappropriate and overbearing musical score. Lelio, who has been known to dazzle in the past, gets as far out of the way of his performers and the story as possible. He has the leading actors to handle such potentially touchy and controversial material, but he’s not adding anything else to the mix. It’s fine, but just a few steps removed from how one might direct a stage play from similar material.
As such, the thematic material fails to rise to the same level that the cast does. From the outset, Lelio and co-writer Rebecca Lenkiewicz (Ida) steep their characters in a world of allusion and tradition, making it known from the telegraphing opening scene that Disobedience is a story about how free will sometimes runs afoul of religious practice. So far, so good, but despite the passion at the heart of Lelio’s taboo story (and some effectively erotic sequences), the pulse rarely quickens because the underlying questions aren’t being focused on as much as the mechanical moment to moment goings on of the characters. None of the questions being raised about the heart versus heaven debate are definitely answerable, but they’re also nothing new in films depicting religion, which means that an extra step has to be taken on the part of Lelio to make these ideological battles mean something. It’s a step that he’s regrettably unwilling to take.
But while the style and theological underpinnings are lacking, Disobedience nails the dramatic interplay between the three leads with precision, and a lot of that comes from the scripts’ strengths and the overall talent of Weisz, McAdams, and Nivola. Ronit’s arc is one of a subtle, slow building emotional warming. When we first see Ronit, she’s an aloof wreck, but the more time she spends in Esti’s proximity, the more passionate she becomes, leading to an exceptionally mounted and purposefully awkward family dinner where she rails against “institutional obligation” as the reason she left her father behind. Every tic and twitch on Weisz face conveys years of repressed thoughts and anxieties that are due to burst at any given moment, and the experience is as draining for the character as it is for the audience.
While Weisz is excelling in the dramatically showier role, McAdams’ character faces a more pointed and profound emotional awakening that’s subtler and harder to convey. Although Esti makes the first move when romantically reconnecting with Ronit, McAdams’ arc will necessitate great feelings of guilt, shame, and disappointment. While she has exceptional friendly, romantic, and dramatic chemistry with Weisz, some of the film’s most emotionally satisfying moments come from McAdams’ interactions with Nivola’s conflicted and increasingly frustrated budding Rabbi. When all three actors are in the same room at the same time, Disobedience roars to life, and it’s easy to see why Lelio would favour a laissez faire approach. But throughout the film, it’s McAdams – who’s continually one of the most underrated performers of her generation – that shines brightest.
This exceptional interplay between the leads makes the film’s curiously simplistic, artificial, and borderline implausible conclusion even more of a cheat. Although they’re very good at playing these characters and there’s some degree of ambiguity buried in there, Lelio sends Disobedience out on a curiously tidy and streamlined note that betrays the conflict at the heart of the material. If the tone of the film is muted by nature of its setting, then the conclusion feels curiously muted by the fact that this is Lelio’s first English language effort. It’s a strangely mainstream ending to a film that’s dealing with issues that are anything but mainstream. It’s those final moments that disappoint the most in Lelio’s latest, a film that’s onto something great, but never quite goes far enough to get anywhere meaningful.
Disobedience opens in Toronto (Cineplex Varsity and Empress Walk), Vancouver (Cineplex International Village), and Montreal (Cinema du Parc and Cineplex Forum) on Friday, May 18, 2018. It expands to other Canadian cities throughout the spring and summer.
Check out the trailer for Disobedience: