Over the past couple of years liberal cinema has been growing. Films led by LGBT characters (Call Me By Your Name, 120BPM), films led by female characters (Three Billboards, Let the Sunshine In), and – more recently – films that offer a critical stance on religion and dogma (Apostasy, A Miseducation of Cameron Post). Disobedience, the new film from A Fantastic Woman director Sebastián Lelio, encapsulates all three.
In an Orthodox Jewish community in North London, previous defector Ronit (Rachel Weisz) returns from New York to mourn the death of her father (Anton Lesser in a powerful cameo), a well-respected rabbi. She must face the judgmental eyes of the pious, but she’s not prepared for the news that her best friends from the past Dovid (Alessandro Nivola) and Esti (Rachel McAdams) have married. We soon understand that Ronit and Esti had a scorned lesbian affair with one another, and now that buried passion is looking to open itself up again.
Weisz is at the height of her abilities here: creating an existential darkness in her eyes even when the rest of her face is structured to smile. Ronit is an exciting, non-conforming rebel who’s never afraid to disrupt a peaceful table-conversation to slate the tradition of marriage and children. And McAdams is powerful as the gentle housewife with a rebel hidden deep inside, desperate to climb out from under the long wig she wears. There aren’t enough scenes that outwardly display this contrariness, to poke holes in dogma, but the film isn’t meant to be an anti-theistic manifesto – it’s a love story between two outsiders: one cast out, the other unable to escape, but both craving some kind of freedom.
Like with A Fantastic Woman, Lelio loves to burrow inside torn characters and maintains an insular, almost alienating focus on them. Wide shots are rarely used in Danny Cohen’s cold and mysterious visuals, working poignantly with the tortured emotions of both Ronit and Esti. Together, Lelio and Cohen create a chilly, existential atmosphere within a leafless winter. Some of the deepest scenes take place in a cemetery, littered with gravestones and a line of trees in the background shrouded in mist. Often images like these are tools for showing off, but they suit the characters perfectly. It’s like watching a modern Antonioni at work.
Although the fundamentalist obstacles in Disobedience are few, this does bring a strange realism to the story. The affair between Ronit and Esti happens as if by accident, soon exploding into an emotional wave of passion. There are a few issues in the dialogue, which sometimes feeling too formal and unnatural, drifting into preach-talk – but Lelio’s superb direction makes that barely noticeable. It’s a strong and beautifully executed piece of cinema.
Disobedience is released in the UK on 30th November 2018