Not content to bring just one award-winning film (“A Fantastic Woman“) to TIFF 2017, Sebastián Lelio doubles up this year with another engrossing female-led drama. Starring Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams, “Disobedience” marks his English-language debut. And more significantly, it is arguably his most impressive directing achievement to date.
Based on Naomi Alderman’s novel, “Disobedience” is set in an Orthodox Jewish community in London. It is where photographer Ronit Krushka (Rachel Weisz) grew up, before being exiled for an act that brought shame to her rabbi father during her youth. Many years later however, she is forced to revisit the ghosts of her past. Her father has died suddenly, prompting her to return home for the funeral rituals. But upon her arrival, she is made to feel like an outcast due to her tarnished reputation. Still, she is welcomed by former best friends Esti (Rachel McAdams) and her husband Dovid, who allow her to stay in their home. But this reunion could prove dangerous, as Ronit and Esti begin to rekindle feelings that almost ruined their lives.
From this premise, Lelio thus proceeds to unravel the story of Ronit and Esti, holding the audience in a vice-like grip. Indeed, the tension is almost unbearable as Ronit finds herself “walking on eggshells” in her interactions with her fellow mourners. You can feel the atmosphere of repression as these people greet her simply with an impersonal “may you live a long life.”
The solemnity of that greeting is just one of the many Jewish details that give the film its fascinating specificity. Esti, for example, wears a wig as a sign of female modesty. Furthermore, marital sex is a weekly scheduled appointment that she reluctantly obliges.
The simmering chemistry between Esti and Ronit, therefore, creates incredible suspense. And the script handles the awakening of their repressed desires with a rare complexity. Though Lelio doesn’t hold back on a steamy sex scene between the two, the script shrewdly underlines the obstacles that would prevent them from pursuing their mutual attraction.
As such, the screenplay admittedly falters by relying on a contrived moment of indiscretion to fully set the plot in motion. Additionally, the performances by Weisz and McAdams are somewhat one note (except when they are alone together). In fact, they are almost upstaged by Alessandro Nivola in a late-breaking scene that respectfully and intelligently challenges Judaic traditions.
Regardless of the film’s ultimately minor flaws, it is still a strong cinematic effort.
On the surface, “Disobedience” may appear to be a straightforward lesbian love story. But as Nivola’s key scene illustrates, it is also a potent, feminist exploration of human desire and the true meaning of freedom.