Sebastián Lelio is having himself quite a year. A couple of months ago he won an Oscar for A Fantastic Woman, and now he comes out with his first English-language film, Disobedience, an achingly beautiful look at love and choice, without taking the easy road and vilifying a single person or establishment.
After a beloved rabbi in England dies, his daughter Ronit (Rachel Weisz) decides to return home from New York, in order to mourn. Reuniting with her childhood friends, Esti and Dovid (Rachel McAdams and Alessandro Nivola, respectively), who are now married to each other, she turns to them for support, but also must deal with the consequences of leaving the strict and somewhat insular Orthodox Jewish community as a young adult.
Just with that synopsis, I was thinking about the myriad directions the film could go. There was a frightening documentary last year that was short-listed for the Oscar called One of Us, which dealt with the Hasidic community, and how hard it is for a woman to leave. It would have been very easy to make the group into villains, make them outwardly judgmental and abusive, but Lelio doesn’t take that easy out. Instead, there’s a fascinating portrait of three loving characters, particularly Esti, as Rachel McAdams also starred in Spotlight a few years ago, and her character had to reconcile her faith with the realities of the Catholic Church’s abuses of children. Seeing her be a complex character with a different religious backdrop was very interesting indeed.
While the film initially jabs at Ronit (who goes by “Ronny” in New York) for leaving her father behind, it becomes clear that she was all but forced out, due to the fact that she and Esti were becoming romantically involved. Her rabbi father was ashamed, and Ronit felt it was for the best to separate herself from the community, both for her own freedom, and to spare Esti a public humiliation. But of course, being back together brings those feelings back to the surface, culminating in a beautifully executed sex scene that is more erotic in four minutes than 50 Shades of Grey was in two hours while still leaving most of the graphic physicality to the imagination.
All three leads are great in their own way. From the opening scene, where the soon-to-be late rabbi gives a sermon on the importance of free will, juxtaposed with Ronit taking pictures of elderly people covered in tattoos, the dichotomy in the characters is wonderfully established. Correct me if I’m wrong on this, but I’ve been told that in Orthodoxy, marking the skin is forbidden, to the point that people with tattoos can be denied sacraments, including burial in Jewish cemeteries. Ronit has truly broken from her roots and forged her own life. This allows her to be a voice of needed dissent and a catalyst for change, and Weisz plays it perfectly.
Nivola as Dovid is stoic and straight-laced, but he loves his wife with all his heart. He is normally at an established advantage due to the position of men in the community, but he does not exploit it to assert power. He’s another one who could be an easy antagonist, but again, Lelio eschews such a clichéd approach. Dovid doesn’t want to lose Esti, and he wants to have children and take over for the late rabbi, but he also knows that Esti should be who she is, and he loves her greater than he loves himself. As he grapples with this inner conflict, there are some brilliant shots of him behind ridged glass and wooden rods on a railing, looking like he’s constantly in his own internal prison.
And then there’s McAdams. She’s come a long way since Mean Girls. This is the best performance of her career, one worthy of a Supporting Actress nomination if people remember this film come Awards Season. She’s constantly at war with her faith and her heart, her desires as a human and her obligations as a woman of Orthodoxy. She wears a customary wig in public, and it really serves as a transformative moment whenever she takes it off. She figuratively (and almost literally) becomes a different person. She’s absolutely wonderful.
I had the privilege to see the film at the Landmark Theater here in Los Angeles, where a Q&A session was conducted afterwards with Lelio and composer Matthew Herbert, and I learned a couple of things that enhanced the experience even further. For one, Herbert made sure that the score didn’t resolve until the final scene. Even in the sex scene, the music cues are left hanging, flowing in and out whenever thematically appropriate, with a brilliant use of The Cure’s “Lovesong” as a supplement. Similarly, there’s a constant use of Jewish choir music that works to such a great degree. Everyone is well-meaning in the film, if not always exactly nice. The early, somewhat dismissive use of, “May you live a long life,” when Ronit first shows up is a great example. So there’s some ugliness to be had in the synagogue, but it’s contrasted with such beautiful music, an intentional display of the light and darkness in us all.
Also, while I didn’t notice it in the film, Lelio pointed out that it was his intention for Ronit and Esti to be essentially two halves of the same person. Ronit left and got her freedom, but it estranged her from her faith and family. Esti stayed behind and got a family, but felt trapped. He explained it using the metaphor of a playing card. If you have a queen card, there are two portraits on the card, one on top and one on the bottom, facing opposite directions. That was the dichotomy he wanted to project with Ronit and Esti. I’d say he succeeded.
There were so many ways this film could have gone wrong. It could have drifted into trope territory, placed ill-advised blame on entire institutions and generations of traditions, or even just gone for cheap sexual exploitation. Instead, Sebastián Lelio delivers an even better love story than A Fantastic Woman, aided by a trio of grand actors, with Rachel McAdams giving the best performance I’ve ever seen from her. If you can’t get into Avengers: Infinity War, or if you’re fatigued from the MCU in general (I swear a review is coming for this in a few days), see this wonderful, lovely film, and have yourself a genuine cry.
Join the conversation in the comments below! Which film should I review next? Do you think this was a respectful depiction of religion in film? Which Rachel did you wish you were during that sex scene? Let me know!