In recent years, Chilean writer-director Sebastián Lelio has rapidly announced himself as one of contemporary cinema’s more astute and empathetic tellers of women’s stories. From the courageous divorcée feverishly pursuing a new connection in Gloria to the gutsy transgender singer stubbornly insisting upon her right to widowhood in last year’s foreign-language Oscar champion A Fantastic Woman, Lelio’s heroines fit the mold of many a female archetype familiar from any number of timeworn film genres, from the late-age lovers of Nancy Meyers’ glossy rom-coms to the embattled melodrama muses leading with heart over head in the films of Douglas Sirk. Comparisons to Pedro Almodóvar are inevitably tempting but somewhat futile: Lelio loves his women with an ardor approaching that of the inescapable Spanish auteur, but his films are not rainbow-colored, animal-printed ensemble parties so much as gritty and largely unvarnished character portraits. Lelio isn’t immune to bold, fourth wall-breaking flourishes (see A Fantastic Woman’s breathtakingly enigmatic climax, set inside the locker room of a men’s sauna), but style is more an occasional resource than a definitive trait in his work thus far.
Whereas Almodóvar’s experiments in style added flair and grandeur to the personal dramas of desperate women (and put his movies in conversation with those of mighty predecessors like Sirk and Rainer Werner Fassbinder by sometimes paying direct homage to their earlier efforts), Lelio’s touches are far more infrequent and less indebted to any obvious cinematic forefathers. Instead, moments like A Fantastic Woman’s flawlessly-choreographed, mid-film dream interlude or Gloria’s spontaneous solo dance to the the film’s title track subtly exemplify the ways in which our everyday lives contain touches of magic that are rapturously enveloping but ultimately fleeting, like stardust that vanishes the second it’s actually grasped. No matter how much sparkle his films unleash, Lelio, it seems, is a realist at heart.
Lelio's recent Disobedience marks the first of two continent-shifting forays into English-language cinema. (The other is Gloria Bell, a Los Angeles-set, Julianne Moore-led update of Gloria that premiered at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival.) Adapted from the titular novel by British writer Naomi Alderman, Disobedience follows the fateful journey undertaken by Ronit (Rachel Weisz, also a producer on the project), a New York-based photographer who returns to the London home of her youth following the sudden death of her father, Rav Kruschka (Anton Lesser), an ultra-Orthodox rabbi who succumbed to a stroke while sermonizing to the cloistered community that revered him. Ronit, however, had a much trickier relationship with this pillar of devout worship. A secular stranger to her father and his circle, Ronit fled the fold many years ago for reasons that gradually come into focus as her mournful visit unexpectedly intensifies from one of simply paying respects to rekindling fragile bonds.
This latter burden becomes clear with the introduction of Rabbi Dovid Kuperman (Alessandro Nivola), her father’s prized pupil and the likely successor to fill the vacancy left by his passing, as well as his wife, Esti (Rachel McAdams), a literacy teacher and childhood friend of Ronit’s. Diminutive and sullen-eyed, Esti can barely look at Ronit without dodging her gaze or casually letting slip a passive-aggressive remark. It shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone who has watched the film's trailer or glimpsed its awesomely forthright poster that Esti is the primary reason for Ronit’s self-imposed exile. As teenagers, the two women were involved in a sexual relationship that came to its distressing conclusion when Ronit’s father caught them in the act, wrenching the two apart and provoking his daughter’s westward retreat. Now, in the present, the two women are unable to relax or even breathe in the other’s company, much less forget the desire that besmirched but forever binds them. During a diplomatic but adamant conversation with Dovid, Ronit promises to conduct herself with honor during her stay in the childless home he shares with his wife. But when given a moment alone together with her long-ago love, Ronit can’t help herself — and neither can Esti. As scripted by Lelio and Rebecca Lenkiewicz (who previously co-wrote Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida, another understated tale of spiritual reckoning), the ensuing narrative crescendoes in bursts of overpowering erotic abandon, from stolen alleyway kisses to a panting hotel room tryst that is staggering in its explosive, semi-explicit carnality. Rarely has the all-consuming pull of a forbidden passion been depicted with such utterly lifelike disorientation.
Despite its erotic streak, the mood and milieu of Lelio’s first English-language production remains fittingly dour. He is unwaveringly focused on the glacial-grey skies and impenetrable stock brick houses of London’s Hendon suburb, attentively photographed by Danny Cohen, a veteran of Tom Hooper’s prestige pictures. Yet what plays out within this environ is enlivened at nearly every instance by a vibrant, movie-enhancing score from Matthew Herbert that is by turns muted and majestic, arising in the trickles and gusts of various instruments, from woodwinds to the shofar to actual glass bowls. The words of love and devotion that neither Ronit nor Esti dare speak to one another, whether out of fear or inarticulacy, are given exhilarating voice by Herbert's artistry.
It should also come as no surprise to anyone who witnessed Paulina García and Daniela Vega’s infectiously spirited yet steadying performances in, respectively, Gloria and A Fantastic Woman that Lelio has elicited three magnetic characterizations that, at their very best, seep under the skin and grab ahold of the senses with little disruption. To watch Weisz and McAdams slink around each other before finally pouncing is to watch two people confront ghosts that have long tormented them; they are both the haunted and the haunter, startling one another afresh with the unignorable truth of their flesh and blood. Weisz is the more emotionally direct of the pair, but it’s McAdams who quietly reveals herself as the piece’s true revelation. The shame smeared across Esti’s face at the outset of Disobedience proves only to be a ploy; the actress’ arch, catlike stare remains the most dependable barometer of her character’s evolving interior life, contorting with fear, lust, and impudence as Esti first rebukes then flaunts the dirty secret that might lead to her ruin or her liberation. She is matched beat-for-beat by Nivola, who has long been a consummate, captivating, and gently chameleonic screen actor, from Laurel Canyon to Junebug to tiny, near-thankless parts in American Hustle, A Most Violent Year, and The Neon Demon. Here, he leaves no space between himself and the character, a warm yet pious man furiously besotted with a wife incapable of reciprocating his ardor.
It is to the credit of Lelio and Lenkiewicz’s script, and Alderman’s source material, that Dovid’s arc is afforded the same credence and compassion as Ronit’s and Esti’s, building to a triumphant yet boldly bittersweet finale that avoids histrionics for the sake of a more subdued meditation on progress and acceptance, pitched on a human scale rather than a polemical one. Lelio and his collaborators have savvily embedded their political beliefs within the narrative’s interpersonal conflicts, but what is perhaps most surprising and even sophisticated about the film’s political throughline is its ability to balance a subversive lesbian love story with an incisive and gingerly foregrounded critique of the dehumanization of women enclosed within the faith. The narrative thrust of Disobedience is eventually and admirably less concerned with our protagonists’ hard-to-imagine, happily-ever-after union than with the far heavier matter of one woman’s daunted desire for freedom, asking not “Will Esti wind up with Ronit?” but rather “Will Esti ever be allowed to realize such a life for herself within the confines of this patriarchal enclave?” In the hands of a more bombastic filmmaker, such a loaded inquiry might have registered as little more than an uncomplicated condemnation of ultra-Orthodox Judaism itself. But by nestling the argument within the film’s larger portrait of Esti, Lelio instead exemplifies the religion’s limitations for a particular woman already pondering a more self-determinative way of life, rather than denouncing the religion as a persecutor of all women.
One of the filmmaker's most astute grace notes is to briefly alight on the peripheral figure of Ronit’s good-natured Aunt Fruma, the only person to welcome her niece’s return with anything remotely resembling warmth, at each escalating stage of the narrative. As played by veteran Liverpudlian actress Bernice Stegers, the character imparts with a few knowing, loving looks, aimed with purposeful precision at both Ronit and Esti, a clear understanding of the human toll of concealment and subjugation. It’s the type of small, volumes-speaking performance that widens the film’s perspective and enables Lelio’s drama to represent the many loves — not just romantic, but familial and spiritual, too — that can often go neglected yet never be expelled.
So why does Disobedience deserve a place in the awards season conversation, especially with more outwardly exciting and elaborate fare coming quickly down the pipeline? Lelio’s filmmaking may not be necessarily pushing the medium forward, but his generous empathy, his eager willingness to consider the beliefs of all of his characters and, through them, plumb the complicated nuances of faith, family, and sexuality, is refreshing, even radical in its refusal to prettify the hard truths of these subjects. Several of Disobedience’s characters behave inhumanely, or else put words to inhumane mentalities, throughout the course of the film, but not a single individual is rendered minuscule or subhuman within the eye of Lelio’s camera. And when the director trains that eye on Weisz, McAdams, or Nivola and closes in on the expressive faces and moving bodies of his three leads, he reminds us once again that a single gesture from a great actor can thrill us more viscerally than the most expensive visual effect and communicate the type of felt human experience that, contrary to Hollywood’s belief, still has a home on the big screen.