Rachel Weisz stars as a black sheep drawn back to her London Orthodox Jewish home, rekindling sparks with a childhood friend played by Rachel McAdams in Sebastian Lelio’s English-language debut.
With his last two exceptional features, Gloria and A Fantastic Woman, Sebastian Lelio brought an empathetic gaze to complex stories of women weathering all the rocky changes life can throw at them. That vein continues in the Chilean director’s multilayered English-language debut, Disobedience, a transfixing consideration of love, faith, sexuality and personal freedom within the insular confines of a London Orthodox Jewish community. Beautifully acted by Rachel Weisz, Rachel McAdams and Alessandro Nivola as the three points of a melancholy romantic triangle, this is a deeply felt drama that exerts a powerful grip.
Adapted by Lelio and playwright Rebecca Lenkiewicz from the novel by Naomi Alderman, the film’s strongest marketing peg for potential distributors — in addition to the cast — is its nuanced exploration of a taboo lesbian relationship within a microcosm of religious repression. The tone, like the muted light and color palette of Danny Cohen’s cinematography, is one of careful restraint, which makes the roiling emotions beneath the characters’ surfaces all the more compelling.
Lelio opens with frail Rav Kruschka (Anton Lesser) abruptly dropping dead while delivering a fiery sermon at a North London synagogue about the eternal choice of human beings, between the sanctity of the angels and the desires of the beast. His estranged daughter Ronit (Weisz) gets a call informing her of his passing in New York, where she has a career as an edgy portrait photographer. Ronit’s first instinct is to numb the pain with wine, anonymous sex and the child-like distractions of an ice-skating rink. But she gathers her strength and flies home to pay her respects.
Dovid (Nivola), a childhood friend and the Rav’s most gifted student, greets the unexpected Ronit somewhat stiffly. Inside the house, other community members barely conceal their disdain, muttering the traditional “May you live a long life” blessing with pro forma chilliness. Her wild raven hair and boho-chic clothing make Ronit look like a foreigner among the Orthodox women in their plain black garments and synthetic wigs. Clearly, her exit from the community was not on ideal terms. Only her good-humored Aunt Fruma (Bernice Stegers) seems pleased to see her, while her Uncle Moshe (Alan Corduner) is more distant.
Among the women is Esti (McAdams), who completed an inseparable trio with Ronit and Dovid in their youth but now remains standoffish. Ronit is taken aback to learn that they have married, and Esti is visibly uncomfortable to have her staying in their home at Dovid’s invitation.
In these establishing scenes, Lelio through the actors’ small gestures and subtle body language expertly suggests the reunited friends’ history of closeness while drawing the barriers put in place during their time apart. Dovid, a holy man of growing stature within the community, shrinks from the impropriety of a hug from Ronit, yet as she’s lighting a cigarette, he shields the flame with a tenderness that’s almost intimate. By contrast, the nervousness with which Esti kisses her husband and gently strokes his beard that night suggests a conscious effort to demonstrate her feelings for him. And perhaps to remind herself of them.
Ronit takes pleasure in expressing worldly attitudes that shock the community, notably in her humorously spiky outbursts during a Shabbat dinner. And Dovid shows his strength of character by serving as a diplomatic buffer. She is rankled that no one bothered to inform her of her father’s declining health, and hurt to read an obituary stating that he left behind no children. That perhaps prepares her for the news that the Rav left his entire estate to the synagogue. (Her mother died years earlier.) But as Ronit re-enters her family home, accompanied by Esti, and surveys the sad evidence of her father’s illness, the depth of her grief becomes apparent.
In a scene both awkward and lovely, Ronit nervously turns the dial on her father’s radio and finds a station playing The Cure’s “Lovesong.” Almost whispering, she begins singing along, swaying gently to the music. Esti joins her, albeit tentatively, and the late-’80s hit becomes instantly significant, pulling them back to their younger years together. When Esti impulsively kisses Ronit, confused feelings are unlocked on both sides.
Both Dovid and Esti are teachers. Tellingly, his yeshiva students are discussing the Song of Songs, with its celebration of sensuality, while Esti’s English class at an Orthodox girls’ school is doing Othello, examining the killing of Desdemona following false accusations of adultery. Those lessons provide artful foreshadowing both of the joyous rediscovery of love between Ronit and Esti, and the risk of damning judgment.
Lelio rigorously eschews melodrama in all this, most crucially in his nuanced treatment of Esti, played by a thoroughly deglamorized McAdams with acute sensitivity. The character initially is fearful and hesitant in her disinhibition, and then gradually more defiant as she confronts her own truth and makes tentative moves to seek her freedom. Throughout this painful process, her faith is never in doubt, nor the sincerity of her feelings for Dovid.
But the director also makes it clear that her desire for Ronit wells up from a place of anguished repression, of feelings she has fought hard to tamp down in the years since Ronit’s sudden departure. The terms of that exit, and the toll on Ronit’s relationship with her father, are revealed via fragments in Weisz’s guarded yet self-possessed and passionate characterization. (The actress optioned the novel and put the project in motion, doubling as a producer.) Their first sexual encounter after being reunited, in a Central London hotel room, is alive with raw feeling, unlike Esti’s dutiful once-a-week lovemaking with Dovid.
Deservedly forgotten ’90s movies like A Stranger Among Us and A Price Above Rubies co-opted Orthodox Jewish communities as an exotic backdrop for stories short on legitimate cultural specificity. But Disobedience demonstrates a persuasive respect for the people of Rav Kruschka’s temporarily orphaned flock. Lelio is too compassionate and psychologically probing a filmmaker to treat the religious community as a mere impediment to Esti’s long-thwarted self-realization, and the path of her emergence is never pat or predictable. Nor is the final outcome.
Perhaps the chief distinguishing factor is the richly three-dimensional treatment of Dovid — played by Nivola in what’s arguably the movie’s standout performance as a conflicted man of honor, even when he’s attempting to lay down the law like an old-school fundamentalist. The look of cold disgust Dovid gives his wife when she opens up to him is startling, but ultimately, it’s the moving integrity of this character that gives the drama its satisfying emotional breadth and lingering poignancy.
Another distinctive score from British electronic composer Matthew Herbert, continuing his collaboration with Lelio after A Fantastic Woman, provides delicate enhancement to the contemplative mood. And strategic use of sung Hebrew prayers adds immeasurably to the story’s sorrow and gravitas.
Disobedience, a cryptic title that invites more than one interpretation, may be too somber and unhurried to break beyond a niche audience. But the movie’s soulful reflections on collective faith and individual freedoms get under your skin, continuing to resonate after the end credits have rolled. It confirms Lelio’s ascent among the most interesting filmmakers coming out of Latin America.
Production companies: Element Pictures, LC6 Productions, Braven Films
Cast: Rachel Weisz, Rachel McAdams, Alessandro Nivola, Anton Lesser, Bernice Stegers, Allan Corduner, Nicholas Woodeson, Liza Sadovy, Clara Francis, Mark Stobbart, Caroline Gruber
Director: Sebastian Lelio
Screenwriters: Sebastian Lelio, Rebecca Lenkiewicz, based on the novel by Naomi Alderman
Producers: Frida Torresbianco, Ed Guiney, Rachel Weisz
Executive producers: Rose Garnett, Daniel Battsek, Ben Browning, Glen Basner, Andrew Lowe, Eric Laufer, Giovanna Randall
Director of photography: Danny Cohen
Production designer: Sarah Finlay
Costume designer: Odile Dicks-Mireaux
Music: Matthew Herbert
Editor: Nathan Nugent
Casting: Nina Gold
Sales: FilmNation, WME
Venue: Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentations)