Director: Sebastián Lelio
Stars: Rachel Weisz, Rachel McAdams, Alessandro Nivola
Hot off of an Oscar win for Best Foreign Language Film (A Fantastic Woman released in the UK earlier this year), Sebastián Lelio cools off considerably with this 2017 holdover; a fatally overwrought tale of forbidden love in the orthodox Jewish community of North London.
Community leader Rav Krushka has died. All are in mourning. In New York, his estranged daughter Ronit (Rachel Weisz) receives a call that brings her back to the fold. The occasion reunites her with her two best friends growing up; Rav’s most faithful disciple, Dovid Kuperman (Alessandro Nivola), and Ronit’s former lover and the catalyst for her self-imposed exile, Estie (Rachel McAdams). In her long absence, Dovid and Estie have married. Ronit stays in their box room while setting her father’s affairs in order; a process which reveals just how outcast she remains.
From the off Disobedience is hemmed in by Lelio’s instance on matching the community’s restraint and hermetic nature by reflecting it in the dourness of his shooting. Instead of merely sombre, the mood is downright oppressive, and warmth is wholeheartedly absent. Ronit’s arrival is met with near hostility, while only the strained dialogue intimates that she was in any way close to Dovid or Estie in years gone by. The film’s central trio are devoid of chemistry. For McAdams and Nivola that makes a degree of sense; they’re playing out a marriage held together by rigid denial. Between Weisz and McAdams this gulf becomes more problematic. There’s simply little reason to believe there was or is any fire between them.
In an effort to compensate for this, perhaps, their inevitable hotel room tryst mid way through the picture is awkwardly elaborate and leering. Lelio’s aim presumably is to make this a sort of burning crescendo. Having failed to successfully build tension, however, it comes off as uncomfortably full-on, even though it remains far less gratuitous than, say, Blue Is The Warmest Colour. Still, with everything else so stifled, the sequences sticks out awkwardly.
Care and attention has clearly gone in to observing the traditions of Jewish Orthodoxy to give the film verisimilitude, however the overall impression given is disappointingly predictable; that of a backwards community that is steadfastly out of step with larger cultural shifts toward sexual liberalism. Religion is painted as unmoving and unseeing. Granted, such extremism remains prevalent in some sections of all religions, but Disobedience is one of the very few mainstream films to open up this particular world. Some semblance of balance would’ve been welcome. Instead we are presented with the usual po-faced intolerance; so much so that it suggests a level of prejudice existing behind the camera as well.
All of which shoulders the film with unnecessary baggage (though this is strangely fitting, as cumbersome luggage dominates the film to an almost weird degree). It might’ve been possible to get past these failings, but the relentless sense of dreary imprisonment and emotional fatigue makes it all very weary to get through. Perhaps this is a byproduct of how the British are observed by our South American cousins; reserved, uptight, loathe to express ourselves. These are the prevailing characteristics exemplified throughout Disobedience.
Nivola’s Dovid is seen protecting flames from being extinguished on more than one occasion, foreshadowing the conflict that rises inside of him as the truth reveals itself. And while Estie is the film’s saddest character, Dovid becomes the most interesting, vying with himself and his religion in a struggle that Lelio finds almost transcendent, allowing the actor to move in and out of focus during one pivotal scene. It’s a moment that briefly suggests that the film might finally come to life. But it never really does. Despite Nivola’s efforts, the flame is snuffed out.