Disobedience: Heavy-Handed Tolerance

Image courtesy of Bleecker Street.

** ½ (out of 4)

Like the other movie Sebastián Lelio released this year, A Fantastic Woman, Disobedience seeks to capture the emotional psychology of a non-heterosexual female. But while Fantastic centered on a trans Chilean singer, Disobedience’s protagonist is Ronit (Rachel Weisz), a lesbian who works as a photographer in New York. When the film opens, Ronit learns that her father (Anton Lesser), the spiritual leader of a secluded, London-based Orthodox Jewish community, has suddenly passed away. And when she returns home for his funeral, she receives still more unexpected news: Dovid (Alessandro Nivola), her father’s protégé, has gotten hitched with Esti (Rachel McAdams), a woman with whom Ronit once had a passionate, forbidden affair. 

The first half of Disobedience offers an exquisite depiction of how Rachel’s sexual identity colors her relationship with Esti, Dovid, and the larger Orthodox community. The way, for instance, in which Roni’s relatives dance around the subject of her affair with Esti – they never mention it explicitly, but their every gesture demonstrates tacit awareness of it – aptly illustrates just how taboo the subject of sexuality remains in many Orthodox communities. Lelio’s shots, furthermore, always feature a clear division between the foreground and background, a fact that Lelio exploits to highlight Ronit’s sense of outsiderness vis-à-vis her straight relatives. And in the lead-up to Ronit and Esti’s first kiss (it’s no spoiler to say that they end up rekindling their romance), the film effectively uses long takes and drawn-out silences to indicate the extent to which sexual and emotional repression have damaged both women’s lives.

Image courtesy of Bleecker Street.

Sadly, the refreshing subtlety of this portrait of isolation doesn’t last. In contrast to recent LGBT-themed works like Carol and Call Me by Your Name, Lelio turns Disobedience’s second half into a more conventional tale about overcoming in-your-face homophobia and debilitating self-doubt. Worse, the techniques and mechanisms he uses to do so are nothing if not clumsy. In its desire to leave us with a total feeling of uplift, for example, the conclusion skimps on character development, opting instead for plot turns that feel both implausible and hasty. Additionally, Lelio makes numerous attempts at visual symbolism (watch the windows in Ronit’s bedroom for a case in point) that prove both distracting and inorganic: they testify to his annoying lack of confidence in our ability to comprehend the film’s underlying message.

Fortunately, however, Lelio does have one important saving grace. In the past, he’s always been good at finding actresses who can dig into their roles (Paulina García [Gloria], Daniela Vega [A Fantastic Woman]), and Disobedience doesn’t break that trend. Weisz, as usual, shows a remarkable ease with the camera: she can capture the effects of a lifetime of loneliness just through the way she carries herself. And although her character’s emotional dilemmas occasionally feel a bit contrived, McAdams still gives the most moving performance of her career to date. Disobedience ultimately lacks the intriguing ambiguity of Lelio’s Gloria – and in terms of its LGBT content, it’s nowhere nearly as subversive as anything made by Todd Haynes (Carol, Poison) or Andrew Haigh (Weekend). But when it comes down to it, we really should just be glad that Lelio has given his performers enough of a platform to exhibit their remarkable talent.

Image courtesy of Bleecker Street.


Disobedience (2017)

Starring: Rachel Weisz, Rachel McAdams, Alessandro Nivola

Running Time: 114 minutes

MPAA Rating: R, “for some strong sexuality.”

Produced by: Rachel Weisz, Ed Guiney, Frida Torresblanco

Written by: Sebastián Lelio, Rebecca Lenkiewicz

Directed by: Sebastián Lelio