One of the bad things about being a movie lover who resides in a southern city is the lack of movies that come my way; sometimes it can take a few extra months before I can see and study a film that everyone else is raving about. Sebastián Lelio’s “Disobedience” is a film that was one of great anticipation for myself, as a fan of his last film, the Oscar-winning “Fantastic Woman.” The recipient of best foreign language film, “Fantastic Woman” was a provocative and visually stunning entree to the year of 2017, and “Disobedience” is a so-so follow-up.
His first English-language story, based on Naomi Alderman's novel, “Disobedience” centers around Ronit Krushka (Rachel Weisz), a New York-based photographer, and the daughter of a recently deceased rabbi who breathed his last breath during his last sermon. As a denounced daughter of the Rabbi, Ronit (Rachel Weisz) was someone who found herself as a stranger returning home to a community that doesn’t share the same individuality she does. She sees old faces, faces that immediately begin to judge her lack of fulfillment as someone unmarried, unproud of her Jewish heritage, and unconforming to a lifestyle that she abandoned.
The question remains though, why did she leave the community? The answer comes to fruition when we begin to see her interact with her ex-best friend Dovid (Alessandro Nivola), who was dubbed as the spiritual son of her father. He was the boy groomed for the divine throne left by this infamous Rabbi, and someone who was recently married. Ronit (Rachel Weisz) picks on her step-brother for marrying a Jewish woman until she learns the identity of this mystery wife, Esti (Rachel McAdams), who shares an intimate history with Ronit (Rachel Weisz).
As a woman forced to become someone that she’s not, Esti (Rachel McAdams) seems deeply saddened, pretending to fit in with the community she was born into, ashamed of her sexuality. Reminiscent of Xavier Dolan’s “It's Only the End of the World,” the film begins to divulge into an examination of the inherent intolerance of religion. It’s something up for discussion, as when you have the belief that no other worldview is right other than yours, it tends to produce barriers.
The barriers constructed by Sebastián Lelio and his co-writer Rebecca Lenkiewicz never attempt to paint a single individual as an antagonist, the film frames society, and even more so religion as the one at fault, not the followers themselves. It’s a refreshing framing of an imprisoned love story that would point the finger at the man or the pastor, instead, “Disobedience” strays away from expectations and provides a tale that, like “Call Me By Your Name,” blends it's melancholy with an unidentifiable villain. Unlike Luca’s masterpiece though, “Disobedience” doesn’t provide a reveling experience as much as it does a dramatic trial of two women’s silenced affair.
You would expect Lelio and Lenkiewicz’s story to narrow in upon the affair, or the woman who’s risking everything to feel whole again, feeling young again, as The Cure’s “Lovesong” suggests, but the film centers itself around Ronit (Rachel Weisz) who becomes more of an observer than a character. Watching these events take place before, growing quieter and quieter as they continue, never speaking out against them, rarely giving us time with Esti (Rachel McAdams). She’s someone shackled by a community, a husband, a faith that refuses to see her as who she is, more as a surrogate for children. Why that emotional struggle doesn't become the focus still seems perplexing.
Lelio and Lenkiewicz narrative is one absent of that emotional heft because of that choice of fixation I think; it was needed to make this movie something more than an essential examination of the tribulations that LGBTQ members still face in both religious communities and society in general. That’s not to say the film doesn’t provide anything worth investing though; it can become enraging to watch a group belittling others for a difference of viewpoints or a husband forcing his wife to be someone she’s not. Watching her deal with the process is disconcerting and resonating, seeming as if she’s become divorced from her individuality, with only Ronit (Rachel Weisz) being able to remind her of who she once was.
The performances are essential in making this story work, and Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams are well aware of that fact, never straying away from the challenge. The story doesn’t lay everything out for us, so those first moments of interaction have to feel organic and natural as if these two women are no strangers to one another. McAdams and Weisz achieve that level of chemistry in a multitude of ways, hefting a duo of performances that ache the heart as much as they uplift it. Two women standing together in confidence is something special to watch, but Alessandro Nivola is no slouch either. Depicting the husband and Rabbi successor, Alessandro Nivola is subdued near the beginning of the film but slowly begins to pack on the layers of emotion, leading to a speech near the end of the film that serves as one of it's best moments.
The colors and framing of this film is subdued as well, cinematographer Danny Cohen furnishes a bleak and dour look to the film. Filled with greys, storm clouds, dim-lighting, and low contrasting visuality that seems in the vein of a black and white photo, something lacking the same punch of energy needed to make the screenwriting feel more than adequate.
Maybe it should have gone further than just examining this story like an observer; perhaps it should've provided more interaction between the women, it needed more of something. Maybe the story centered around the wrong person as I suggested, maybe it was something else. Regardless of whichever side of the coin I decide to land on, it's a film that suffers because of that vacancy of emotional heft, never branching off as more than a quiet rebellion of everyday circumstances produced by such behavior. Perhaps it should have been more daring, more risky, more outright with its individuality. Maybe it was silenced by its religious undertones.
“Disobedience” is Sebastián Lelio’s third feature film in a row to discuss the hardships of womanhood. The lack of voice, the lack of identity, the lack of notice given to them. He’s become somewhat of a moral authority as a filmmaker, why does he stray away here?
I can’t say that “Disobedience” was worth the wait, there is something here worth watching, something special, I just feel that most of it was left unsaid. Next time, shout it out.