A story of forbidden love

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

It would be a lovely thing if you, the reader, knew less about Disobedience than you already do. Every trailer, every advertisement, every interview in connection with this film has revealed it as a tale of lesbian love set in an intensely Orthodox Jewish community in London. And the reason for this is obvious: You can persuade a lot more people to see a forbidden love story than a movie about a religious community.

But if you do see Disobedience, and you should, try not to think about where you already know it’s going and appreciate how it builds, and how it’s about a lot more than sex. At its most intense and powerful, Disobedience is about courage and claiming one’s life, themes its Chilean director, Sebastian Lelio, explored in his previous films, Gloria and A Fantastic Woman.

The film is beautifully shot, though “beautiful” may seem an odd word to describe photography so stark. To see Disobedience and remember it later is to picture a washed-out world in a kind of blue haze. Yet the movie has an unforgiving clarity. Every line, imperfection, bump, birthmark or blemish on the face of either of its two Rachels, McAdams or Weisz, is there in close-up. Yet what comes out of this is the privileged sense of really, actually seeing people for once, and a feeling that neither actress has ever looked so good or so vital.

Disobedience is a story of coming home. Ronit (Weisz) grew up in the Orthodox community as the daughter of the revered rabbi. Now the rabbi is dead, and she is back in London for the funeral, staying at the home of Dovid (Alessandro Nivola) and Esti (McAdams), old friends of Ronit who have since gotten married. Dovid, who was the protege of the old rabbi, is set to become his replacement.

In the early part of Disobedience, the film seems to be simply an arresting tale of a woman returning to a community that holds her in mild contempt. Ronit doesn’t flaunt her modernity, but she doesn’t hide it, and that she’s the rabbi’s daughter makes her independence seem an especially pointed rejection. All the scenes of her interacting with the community elders—whether it’s a holiday dinner or a reading of the will—have a slight edge of tension.

Amid all this well-observed detail, it’s easy—or would be easy, if you didn’t already know—to ignore that something is going on with Esti, just some extra atmosphere happening in McAdams’ performance. Esti seems to have a problem with Ronit, or maybe the problem she has is with her husband. During the marital love scene—the weekly, scheduled sex—she looks as though she’d rather be doing a crossword puzzle.

This is in wild contrast to the love scene later in the film, the one that people will be staggering out of the theater talking about, the one that must not be seen by anyone with high blood pressure or prone to excessive perspiration. The scene is not in any way graphic, but it’s so much an expression of the characters’ longing—a longing that has been building throughout the film, or in the case of Esti, for many years—that it’s overwhelming. It’s not an interlude, or a visual aid, but the center of the entire movie.

Weisz is the locus of Disobedience and becomes all the more fascinating as we come to see Ronit through the eyes of McAdams’ performance. It’s rare in film to see such a symbiosis between actresses—rare, because there are so few opportunities. As Esti, McAdams benefits from her previous association with hard-driving roles. It gives us a sense of what is being bottled up and how it can’t stay under wraps for long.

The women are remarkable, unforgettable. But don’t overlook Nivola, an enigmatic figure as the rabbi and husband. At one point, he formally addresses his community, and Lelio films him in such extreme close-up that he keeps going in and out of focus. It’s the nature of the role expressed visually, a man we do not know but will know by the end of the film.

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