The Chilean director Sebastián Lelio is already having quite the 2018. In March, he scooped up an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film for “A Fantastic Woman,” his whimsical and harrowing portrait of a transgender woman trying to survive the aftermath of her lover’s death. His new film, “Disobedience,” is making waves for its daring depiction of a complex erotic relationship between two women, played by Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams.
“Disobedience” is based on the novel by Naomi Alderman, which Lelio adapted for the screen with Rebecca Lenkiewicz. It fits with Lelio’s past few films, which have explored the kinds of female sexuality that societies don’t always accept. “Disobedience” is set in the closed world of British Orthodox Jews, where female sexuality is rigorously controlled. Anything outside of the norm is out of the question.
Ronit (Weisz) has long been estranged from the community, living in New York and working as a photographer, but when she receives the news that her father, an esteemed rabbi, has died, she rushes to London. She is astonished to find that not only has her existence been erased from her father’s death, but her best friends Dovid (Alessandro Nivola) and Esti (Rachel McAdams) have married.
THERE’S A heaviness that hangs over the threesome, as the couple welcomes Ronit to stay in their home. Meaningful glances between the women convey the undisclosed history between them, which lingers in the air. The script, an efficient study in subtext, dances around the reality until halfway through before the pretense comes tumbling down. Ronit and Esti were caught in a sexual relationship as young women by Ronit’s father. She chose to run, while Esti stayed and became a dutiful rabbi’s wife. So the question is, what do they do now?
Lelio’s style seems careful and restrained in “Disobedience” — the colors are drab and muted, the characters speak enigmatically. But there’s a bold flamboyance to his style even within the desaturated color palette and claustrophobic environment. Real meaning is communicated in every stylistic choice. A tentative handheld camera wavers among the three main characters, as a tremulous score contributes to the nervous energy. When the women finally swoon into each other’s arms, the score swings into broad, romantic swells. Even the edit is insouciant, cutting frequently to Esti’s bashful, hungry glances at Ronit.
AT ONE point, Ronit turns the radio to The Cure’s “Lovesong,” the lyrics nearly drowning out their conversation. The expression of earnest pop melodrama could almost be seen as a little too on the nose, but the guileless declaration of love on the radio comes as a relief, a necessary tonic in this repressed world.
The performances are towering, especially McAdams, who gradually eclipses her co-stars. She’s desperate, yearning and losing her closely curated sense of control. She makes palpable the experience of a young queer woman forcing herself to be something she’s not. And when the mask (or the wig) comes off, it’s nearly impossible to put it back on. Nivola is also stunning in this transformed performance as a man of the cloth who starts to question everything he knows.
But “Disobedience” loses its sure footing towards the end, offering too many trick endings and surprise reveals. It keeps feinting at something more significant, but it just is what it is — the choices that people make. That choice, that ability to disobey, is what makes us uniquely human, what separates us from angels and beasts, as Ronit’s father describes in his opening sermon. To disobey is inherently human — if you choose to do so.