Has Chilean director Sebastián Lelio become our modern day “women’s director”? Forsaking the quaintness — if not downright pejorative — connotations of that hoary old phrase, Lelio’s last three releases have focused on the lives and loves of a free-spirited older single lady (Gloria), the grief of a transgender waitress (A Fantastic Woman) and, now, with Disobedience, the oppression of Jewish orthodoxy against two North London women rekindling a sexual spark.
Starring Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams as Ronit and Esti, Lelio’s dispassionate yet curious eye immerses us in the world of Orthodox Judaism, a community that Ronit escaped years prior when she fled to New York.
Estranged from her strict father, the revered rabbi Rav Krushka (Anton Lesser), the photographer is interrupted in her studio with news of her father’s death. When she returns for the funeral to the community that both nurtured her rebellion and damaged her, she is unwelcomed by everyone except old high school friends Dovid (Alessandro Nivola), who was taken in by her father and groomed to replace him in the synagogue, and Esti, her former love, now Dovid’s wife.
Dubbed Jew Is the Warmest Color after some early screenings (which is both offensive and, sorry to say, kind of funny), the only thing Disobedience shares with Blue Is the Warmest Color is a Sapphic love story at its center and, oh yes, a steamy love scene or two. Yet Lelio, a straight man, has not come under the same fire as Blue director Abdellatif Kechiche for his portrayal of lesbian sex.
As noted above, Lelio’s eye is dispassionate, and the sex — when it finally arrives — isn’t shot through with bright colors and calisthenics. Lelio’s palette here is earthy, and he doesn’t punch up the obvious: sexy Hollywood actresses going at it! Rather he allows the characters to shine as they rediscover their lust.
(About the scene in which Ronit spits into Esti’s mouth, Weisz recalled a writer from the lesbian magazine Curve. “She was down with it,” Weisz has said. “She was like, ‘You inseminated Rachel McAdams.’”)
Weisz is, as you would expect, superb. She’s one of our best actresses, unafraid to partner with idiosyncratic directors and push herself as far as possible. What’s striking about her portrayal here is that there is no shame to her sexuality; her struggle was with the constriction of her faith, and the years of denial and servitude. Her freedom was necessary, though it has taken its toll. Every grace-note and moment of sorrow is etched across her face.
And when did Rachel McAdams blossom into the thoughtful, poised actress she is now? I noticed it during the painful second season of True Detective on HBO, and it was reinforced with her understated work in the Oscar-winning Spotlight. She’s reached another level here in her portrayal of Esti (though an audience member at one point commented on a Yiddish mispronunciation), where this natural beauty allows herself to look washed out, haggard and then transformed by desire (and about 40 other emotions bubbling just beneath the surface). And though her own journey is towards freedom, too, its meaning is more convoluted than for Ronit.
Dovid is the third wheel here — the leader in the community, but a passive bystander in his own home — and Alessandro Nivola never allows the character to become one-note. He’s both a loving and caring husband, a standard-bearer of the faith and, when emotionally cornered, a menace. We feel for the women, but we feel for Dovid as well.
Disobedience has moments of clarity that are painfully honest and, at times, not audience-friendly (the ending can be argued as being both exactly right and exactly wrong). It’s an adult film that allows the complications and ambiguities of the central characters free reign, characters battered by both external and self-imposed impediments to choose, wherein every move seems like an act of … disobedience.