Chilean director Sebastian Lelio has made his name as a keen observer of capable women facing crisis, and his English language debut, Disobedience, hardly breaks this pattern. Moving the action over to north London, Lelio’s meticulously researched film is a bit colder and more intellectual than his previous work, but is nonetheless incredibly rewarding as both a story of forbidden love and as an insight into a sheltered community that outsiders have very little understanding of.
Taking place over the course of a tumultuous week in an ultra-orthodox Jewish community, Disobedience finds successful New York photographer Ronit (Rachel Weisz) thrust back into the restrictive, conservative family she left in London after her father, a hugely respected rabbi, dies. Resented and viewed with haughty disdain by most of the community, her return stirs up long-buried feelings in her old friend Esti (Rachel McAdams). Esti is married to the heir apparent to Ronit’s father’s leadership of the local synagogue, Dovid (Alessandro Nivola), which complicated things even further, as all eyes are trained on their household during the week of mourning.
Both the Rachels do excellent work, McAdams more repressed while Weisz cuts loose. Ronit’s extended family can’t help but launch poisonous barbs at her, very rarely bothering to disguise their true feelings at all, and she ends up pre-empting this with instant aggression of her own. It makes for some superbly discomforting dinner scenes, hard to watch but impossible to look away from as attempts at civility rapidly implode. Lelio and Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s script, adapted from Naomi Alderman’s novel, is so well-versed in the minutiae of its setting that it never feels simply like a backdrop, the suppression of strong emotion matched by the muted, winter-grey colour palette. Characters’ faith and their place in the synagogue informs their every action without this context ever being overbearing.
There’s a real magnetism to Weisz and McAdams’s scenes, the irresistible pull of their mutual attraction evident in every fibre of their performances. Their central sex scene – partly edited by Weisz herself and a starkly different proposition to the incredibly male-gazey equivalent in, say, Blue is the Warmest Colour – is indeed powerful, and the pair of them simply cracking jokes while walking down the street is just as compelling. Lelio keeps the tension up for much of the story, but also knows when to remove the prying eyes and let the characters breathe.
Crucially, despite the high strung emotions and his own traditional ideals, Dovid is not a villain. He genuinely cares for both Esti and Ronit, and though he seems to sometimes stand in the way of their romance, it’s hard not to also sympathise with and feel sorry for him as his life plans get torpedoed by a prodigal daughter who shows little interest in his world. Lelio has always been a very empathetic filmmaker, and it’s exactly this empathy that elevates Disobedience.