Hot from the success of A Fantastic Woman, Chilean director Sebastián Lelio returns with the sexually charged, emotionally restrained Disobedience. Rachels Weisz and McAdams star in this tale of forbidden love and community proscription, yet Lelio’s film exhibits a level of visual artistry far above typically bland awards bait.
Ronit Krushka (Weisz) is working as a photographer in New York when she receives news that her father, a highly respected rabbi, has died. Her reaction is somewhat inscrutable, the camera staying on drawn expression as the elliptical editing transports from her US studio to the front door of her London family home. If the colour seems drained from Ronit’s features, so too is it absent from her environment. Muddy whites and greys pervade Danny Cohen’s cinematography, while Ben Baird’s textural sound design emphasises the characters’ sighs, their awkward shuffles, and autumnal leaves squashed underfoot.
Given the sombre palette, ‘lush’ isn’t quite the right descriptor, but there’s a cool richness to the film that conjures a strange feeling of mourning and family comfort, combined with (almost) unspoken sexual tension. Ronit’s arrival resurrects an old scandal between her and McAdams’ Esti, now married to their childhood friend Dovid (Alessandro Nivoli). It’s obvious what happened, and why such a history would be buried by their traditional Jewish community. Yet Esti and Ronit’s past relationship hangs unspoken in the air, silently punctuating both the formal religious ceremonies rituals and bantering family dinners.
At the centre of the film is Ronit’s ambivalent relationship with her father (Nicholas Woodeson), who we discover caught Esti and Ronit together and subsequently disowned his daughter. His position as a respected community leader is juxtaposed against his spectre as Ronit’s father – a duality laid out in the moments before his death, in which he posits humanity as sitting between the angels and the beasts, differentiated only by our capacity to choose: to follow the rules or to disobey them.
The director sets out such a fecund stage for his characters to interact on that it’s a shame it’s the characters where the film falters. There’s little room for nuance in the dichotomy Lelio presents: tradition, family and conformity versus desire, individuality and freedom. We know exactly how we’re supposed to feel about each player, and while there is a welcome lack of outright villains, there’s ultimately little room to sympathise with anyone’s plight but Ronit and Esti’s.
Dovid is presented as a good man operating within the limits of his faith, but there’s little more to him. And for all their clandestine feelings, Ronit and Esti often feel more like narrative ciphers than living, breathing humans with the attendant conflicts between lofty aspiration and earthly desire. Nevertheless, Disobedience’s third-act narrative inertia does little to dampen its tonal sobriety and quietly powerful compositions. While nuance may be lacking, it makes up in tone and directorial precision.
Christopher Machell | @Dr_Machell