The recent Oscar win of “A Fantastic Woman” as last year’s Best Foreign Language Picture may have been at least partly in response to the impressive performance of its trans star, Daniela Vega; but since any film is ultimately only as excellent as the vision behind it, the bulk of the credit must be laid at the feet of Chilean director Sebastián Lelio.
Fresh on the heels of that groundbreaking triumph, Lelio returns with a new film – this one in English – that once again addresses the suppression of non-conforming identities.
“Disobedience” follows Ronit (Rachel Weisz), a successful photographer who comes home to the Orthodox Jewish community in which she was raised for the funeral of her estranged father. Though her return is met with some initial tension, she is invited to stay with her cousin Dovid (Alessandro Nivola) – a rabbi now married to her childhood friend Esti (Rachel McAdams), with whom she had once shared a “forbidden” relationship. When the attraction between the two women reignites, Esti finds herself questioning her commitment to the role of obedient wife – as well as to the faith that has forced it upon her.
Adapted from a novel by Naomi Alderman, the screenplay by Lelio and Rebecca Lenkiewicz takes pains to keep the roots of the story firmly planted in the insular world it depicts. Lelio reinforces these efforts with his sure-handed direction, capturing the characters’ environment with an almost sensory completeness while keeping their inner experiences at the forefront of our attention.
From its opening scene, in which Ronit’s rabbi father collapses while addressing his congregation on the subject of “choice,” the movie wraps itself (and the audience) in the deeply solemn, contemplative atmosphere of the church. Its characters’ conversations never veer far from the traditions and tenets of their faith; even when discussing the mundane matters of day-to-day life, it’s clear their thoughts are still tethered tightly to the beliefs that inform every aspect of their existence.
Despite the specificity of its setting, and although the nature of its central relationship is particularly resonant for LGBT audiences, the conflict that drives “Disobedience” is universal. Its leading characters serve as stand-ins for anyone whose inner life is at odds with the expectations of their cultural backgrounds, and their ways of dealing with that disparity reflect choices made by real-life individuals trapped in such a dilemma. Ronit has severed ties with her past and built a secular life for herself, while Esti has sacrificed her personal happiness to maintain the connection to her faith – yet each is haunted by guilt and by longing, unable to completely let go of what they have lost or to fully embrace the life they have chosen.
In bringing these women to life, Weisz and McAdams are each superb (though it’s McAdams who gets the greater opportunity to shine, thanks to her character’s more visible journey); they share a rare and palpable chemistry that makes their onscreen love for each other burn brightly and believably. Though these two rightfully dominate the film, however, it’s male co-star Nivola who may have the more difficult task.
As the third point of the film’s precarious romantic triangle, Dovid brings an even wider scope to the story; a pillar of the community’s religious life, he must confront the inadequacy of his own knowledge in a situation that is irreconcilable with the customs of which he is a guardian. A lesser film might have presented him as a mere antagonist, an avatar for patriarchal hetero-normative society. Here, though he may indeed serve those functions, Nivola brings enough depth and gentleness to the character that he is not only prevented from being unsympathetic, but even made genuinely likable.
Ironically, it’s this fair-minded treatment that somewhat weakens an otherwise powerful film.
“Disobedience” walks a delicate line in terms of representation. It places its spotlight on LGBT characters – and because they are female, it also addresses feminist factors such as equality and empowerment. At the same time, it explores these issues within a subculture that has itself long been the victim of marginalization, taking care to avoid disparaging the traditions or demonizing the representatives of the Orthodox Jewish community. It’s an admirable stance, but it results in an awkward structural imbalance that the film does not altogether resolve.
The first two-thirds of the movie, which centers on the build of tension as the passion between the two women slowly reawakens, is riveting cinema. Full of potent verbal and visual subtext, it proceeds at a pace just restrained enough to stoke anticipation without seeming slow or labored, culminating in a physical reconnection that feels as well-earned as it does inevitable.
After this explosive coming-together, however, “Disobedience” seems to drag as it dwells on the fallout and repercussions of the newly-rekindled affair. The focus shifts to Dovid, giving him equal time in his double role as betrayed husband and community leader; though this adds a crucial facet to the film’s perspective, it feels like an extra chapter in a story that has already been told – providing necessary information, but diluting the effect of what has come before it.
More unfortunate, perhaps, is that this later portion of the movie carries with it a sense that “permission” is somehow necessary for the women to fully express their identities and fulfill their needs. Within the context of the plot, of course, and in terms of the characters’ emotional arcs – particularly Esti’s – this is an important step towards resolution; the piece is titled “Disobedience,” after all. It also conveys empathy and respect for those trying to reconcile their religious beliefs with evolving attitudes and changing times. For those viewing the story from the perspective of LGBT or feminist concerns, though, it could be easily interpreted as a validation of sorts for an attitude which continues to be used as justification for the oppression of non-conforming individuals in a society still dominated by straight male privilege.
Despite this potentially divisive challenge to some audiences’ “woke” sensibilities, Lelio’s film is still a powerful statement. Not only does it offer an all-too-rare narrative about same-sex love between women (particularly welcome in the wake of so many successful male-centric queer stories like “Moonlight,” “Call Me By Your Name,” and “Love, Simon”), it presents a message of reconciliation between the values of deeply entrenched tradition and the attitudes of evolving, progressive culture.
Though some might feel it pulls its punches, “Disobedience” nevertheless makes a strong enough impact to call it a worthy and important new entry to the ever-expanding catalog of cinema dedicated to expressing the voice of “otherness” in our popular culture.
“Disobedience,” directed by Sebastián Lelio; starring Rachel Weisz, Rachel McAdams, Alessandro Nivola. Opens April 27 in select theatres.