Among the sensations cinema can masterfully conjure among audiences few are as impactful as tension. While accepted notions conjure images of the iconic violent standoffs presented in Sergio Leone’s Man with No Name trilogy, the palpable sensual tension in Disobedience stands in complete contrast, but succeeds with equally exhilarating effect.
Adapted from Naomi Alderman’s 2006 novel of the same name, the English language debut of Chilean filmmaker Sebastián Lelio – coming fresh off the Oscar success of Best Foreign Language winner A Fantastic Woman – is a striking study in returning to a familiar environment as an outsider.
Set in present day London, New York-based artist Ronit (Rachel Weisz, Denial) returns home following the passing of her father Rav (Anton Lesser, Game of Thrones), a highly respected rabbi in the local Orthodox Jewish community. Weary from the transatlantic flight only to be met with a tentative reception from members of the synagogue including Dovid (Alessandro Nivola, A Most Violent Year), a childhood friend turned star pupil of her father, seeds of a past life begin to unfold with the emergence of Esti (Rachel McAdams, Spotlight). Entrenched within the religious world as Dovid’s wife and teaching at a Jewish school, Esti’s initial interactions with Ronit allude to a life left repressed by both women caught between societal expectations and innate desire.
Layered by groundwork that seamlessly transitions scenes filled with simmering tension while revealing key details of each woman’s past, the eventual catharsis between Ronit and Esti climaxes in a liberating display of passion. Embracing the sexual relationship rather than indulging voyeuristically, the composition of Lelio’s direction, Danny Cohen’s (The King’s Speech) cinematography, Nathan Nugent’s (Room) editing and Matthew Herbert’s (A Fantastic Woman) score results in a beautiful display of human intimacy that at no stage seeps into a lesbian fantasy designed solely for male gratification.
With the reignited flame momentarily relieving the burden each woman carries, pressures from outside forces come to the fore as the divide between societal obligations and personal desires threaten to tear the lovers apart once more. Caught between the two women Dovid’s own personal struggle arises upon being appointed as the successor to Ronit’s father as the head rabbi in a community intent on preserving teachings in accordance with Jewish tradition.
At just under two hours the opening half of Disobedience is among the best seen in any film released so far this year, while in spite of a few lulls early in the third act, the film delivers a finale befitting of significant praise.
With Weisz, McAdams and Nivola all giving outstanding performances, the ensemble amassed provides everyone with individual moments to shine without diminishing the collective effort of the trio. Delving between the respective worlds of Hollywood blockbusters and the art house Weisz delivers another tremendous showing, while given the scope to immerse into such a layered character McAdams thrives in a leading dramatic role that pays off to a greater end result compared with her strong work in the flawed second season of True Detective. Boasting fewer commercial credits compared with his female co-stars, Nivola makes the most of his part to emerge as an actor deserving of greater recognition especially in a profound climax paralleling the engaging philosophical sermon delivered during the film’s opening scene.
Providing audiences with an immersive experience inside the ritualistic life of Orthodox Judaism, the film has little interest in proselytising non-believers into converts. Instead the choices each character makes are informed by the world they exist within as a means of exploring the enduring philosophical struggle between adhering to the tenets of a higher power and the personal autonomy to act upon individual choice.
While the larger existential subject matter may deter audiences unfamiliar with the minutiae of such a specific branch of religious belief, the screenplay co-written by Lelio and Rebecca Lenkiewicz (Ida) is primarily focussed upon character interactions that are universally recognised. Among the many highlights a revelatory dinner scene involving Ronit’s extended family will be identifiable to anyone who has endured the barrage of prodding questions that come with being an unmarried individual of a certain age.
Unlikely to be attended on mass during its limited theatrical run, Disobedience shows itself to be compelling viewing through brilliant performances from Rachel Weisz, Rachel McAdams and Alessandro Nivola. Crafted with exquisite tension, sensual intimacy and theological intrigue, Sebastián Lelio proves that language is no barrier for an immensely talented filmmaker worth seeking out.