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"Disobedience," Sebastián Lelio’s follow-up to his 2017 Oscar-winning film "A Fantastic Woman," and his first English-language film, starts with a Rabbi giving a sermon about free will. He speaks of angels, beasts, and Adam and Eve. He says, fearsomely, that humans are "free to choose." Then he drops dead. There's something refreshing about a story so unconcerned with "subtlety." Put it all out there. Foreground the theme. Underline as you go. "Disobedience," based on Naomi Alderman's novel (with adaptation by Lelio and Rebecca Lenkiewicz) is a good old-fashioned melodrama, albeit with a quieter touch.
The rabbi who dropped dead was Rav Krushka (Anton Lesser), an important figure in the London Orthodox Jewish community. His daughter Ronit (Rachel Weisz), a New York-based photographer, left years ago. When she returns home, she walks into the unchanged world of her childhood, looked at by relatives and former friends with curiosity and concern. She is rebelliously secular, with long free hair, cigarettes, short leather skirts. The obituary for her father states that "sadly" he had no children. It stings. She's been gone so long she had no idea that Dovid (Alessandro Nivola), taken in by her father as a protégé at 13, and Esti, her childhood friend (Rachel McAdams) have gotten married. There's an awkward moment in the kitchen when she makes the connection. The shock on Weisz's face is eloquent, although we don't know the backstory yet.
The eloquence of the performances is key to the material succeeding, since Lelio does not introduce the characters, and their connections, in a straightforward way. It takes some time before you figure out who Dovid is to Ronit, although from their behavior you can tell they once were close. She forgets herself and almost hugs him in a friendly greeting, and then laughs when he recoils from her touch. Dovid and Esti invite Ronit to stay with them during her time in London. This is playing with fire, since it soon becomes clear that Esti and Ronit had an adolescent romance, well-known to the community at the time. Lelio's approach helps us feel we are thrust into the middle of a very tight-knit community, with a long shared history. Exposition is always awkward, so Lelio doesn't bother with it at all. "Exposition" wouldn't be spoken out loud in this crowd since everyone knows everything about everyone else. Dovid and Etsi don't yet have children. She is a teacher in a girls school and enjoys her work. He is set to step into Rav Krushka's sizable shoes. Ronit's arrival throws everything into confusion.
This is Lelio's third film in a row about women (the first being 2013's "Gloria"), and he is deeply empathetic to the ways in which repressive societies put women in all kinds of impossible double- and triple-binds. In "A Fantastic Woman," a trans woman fought to be allowed to grieve for her dead lover, and Lelio's focus on the cruelty of the surrounding world pushed the film into a nightmare-scape. He dials this back in "Disobedience." There are no villains. Even the strict culture of Orthodox Judaism isn't really a villain. The culture is shown as a close one, with many social benefits, benefits which Ronit—in leaving—has missed out on. With all of the dramatic and sexual stuff in the film, the best scene may very well be a group scene early on, when Ronit joins Dovid and Esti's Shabbat, attended by a small group of Ronit's relatives. The "mood" at the table is far from friendly or warm, but it's also not toxic. This is a family. Ronit is a lost lamb, but there is still space for her in the fold. A lively debate occurs, and when Esti pops in unexpectedly with a cutting observation, Ronit stares at her from across the table, thrilled. These all feel like real people, not caricatures. (In this way, it reminded me a little bit of Peter Weir's "Witness," where you could see why Rachel didn't just run away with the cop, leaving the Amish world behind. You could see why she wanted to stay, why she had to stay.)
The relationship between Ronit and Esti, past and present, is clearly the focal point of the film, but Lelio takes his time getting there. McAdams is miscast, but she does a fine job showing Esti's burgeoning emotional life, exploding out of her in a rush: it is as though time stopped for her when Ronit fled the community so many years ago. But McAdams is so inherently positive. In a 1950s film, she'd play a perky ingenue. She's wonderful here when showing mischievous delight sneaking a puff off Ronit's cigarette. But when she has to show Esti's anguish at being forced to marry in order to cure her of wanting to sleep with women, she can't get to the depths required. She knows what the depths are, but she can't get there in the way a Lili Taylor, or Elizabeth Moss, or Natalie Portman could. But the scenes between Weisz and McAdams are fascinating, each actress listening closely to the other, paying attention to every nuance. It doesn't reach the scope of Grand Tragic Romance, but then, it isn't meant to. These were two women whose normal adolescent crush was banned. In a way, time stopped for the both of them.
The colors of the film are subdued and chilly, all blacks, greys, smoky-blues, so that at times it looks like a black-and-white photograph. It's beautiful, in a classical and formal way. "A Fantastic Woman" featured many surreal dreamlike images, but Lelio plays this one straight. So straight, though, it is sometimes a detriment. It's the kind of movie where teachers are shown giving lectures which directly comment on the action of the movie. Dovid and his young rabbinical students discuss sensuous love and its importance, and Esti discusses "Othello" with her students. In one scene in "A Fantastic Woman," Aretha's "(You Make Me Feel Like) a Natural Woman" is prominently featured, and in a scene in "Disobedience," to break an awkward silence with Esti, Ronit spins the dial on the radio and stops on The Cure's "Love Song," which just so happens to narrate perfectly the emotions of the moment. These obvious choices really stick out.
Pauline Kael observed that melodrama is "the chief vehicle for political thought in our films," which you can see time and again, particularly in films made before the 1950s. In literature, melodrama can come off as overblown, preachy. But cinema can make melodrama seem not just real, but urgent and relevant. "Disobedience" could have gone even further in the direction of "Stella Dallas"-melodrama torment. Some of it comes across as curiously low-stakes, considering the circumstances. But, in a way, that's refreshing too.
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