Like Spain’s reigning auteur Pedro Almodovar, Chilean director Sebastián Lelio is a man who loves women — if not strictly in the romantic sense, with a richness and empathy that makes his female characters come alive onscreen like few filmmakers working today.
His 2013 breakout Gloria earned wide praise for its winning portrayal of a disco-dancing Santiago divorcée stumbling through midlife. His second, last year’s A Fantastic Woman, won him the Best Foreign Film Oscar, and set a watermark for actress Daniela Vega’s fiercely intimate portrayal of love and persecution as a trans person.
And now Disobedience, Lelio’s English-language debut, goes deep inside the world of another consummate outsider: Ronit (Rachel Weisz), a British photographer called back from her self-imposed New York exile when her father (Anton Lesser), a prominent Orthodox rabbi, suddenly dies.
Arriving at the devout North London home of his chosen successor, Dovid (Alessandro Nivola), she stands out like an exotic bird in her black leather jacket and loose, uncovered hair. It’s clear that nearly every aspect of her current world — a bohemian blur of black coffee and cigarettes and anonymous sex in bathroom stalls — is a direct reaction to the Torah-bound strictures she grew up in and broke away from years before. (“May you live a long life,” the refrain that nearly everyone she encounters seems to use as a greeting, begins to sound more like a vague threat than a blessing each time it’s repeated).
Ronit’s homecoming isn’t exactly a warm one. Technically, in fact, she’s been erased; her father’s obituary in the local gazette ends with the line “sadly, he left no children.” But she was a part of this place once — a good friend to Dovid and something more to his wife, Esti (Rachel McAdams). And her return is shattering, to varying degrees, for all of them.
Certain people will go see Disobedience because it’s the work of an Academy Award-winning filmmaker; other ones will come to watch two beautiful movie-star Rachels have wild sex in a hotel room. They’ll both get what they came for, more or less. Weisz and McAdams are excellent — and in McAdams’ case especially, remarkably stripped of vanity and affectation — though it’s Nivola (A Most Violent Year, Laurel Canyon) who really surprises. His Dovid zigs where the script might let him zag, finding the imperfect heart of a character who easily could have been a cuckolded cliché.
If the film itself feels like a little less than the sum of its provocative premise, it’s still moving in its own unshowy way: a quietly profound exploration of identity, sacrifice, and the connection all human beings long for, whether or not their God or their family or their community approves. B+