Fresh on the heels of his Oscar-winning portrait of a trans woman on the verge, 2017’s A Fantastic Woman, Chilean writer/director Sebastián Lelio has crafted another beautifully intricate character study with his English-language debut, Disobedience. If this story of forbidden love within an Orthodox Jewish community lacks some of the stylistic flair that defined A Fantastic Woman, its emotional gut punches are no less impactful or well-developed, and its central cast delivers some of the most dynamic performances to hit screens in recent memory. Lelio is making a name for himself as a director uniquely attuned to rendering believable, relatable characters, and if Disobedience is any indication, he may make the jump from arthouse accolades to mainstream marketability in short order.
While Disobedience may still be too niche for a wide audience, it is a film that suitably — and subtly — bridges the gap between the subcultural specificity of A Fantastic Woman and more broadly oriented melodrama. The story follows British expat Ronit (Rachel Weisz) living a secular life in Manhattan when she is abruptly summoned home for the funeral of her estranged father, a revered rabbi. On arrival, Ronit is greeted with cold courtesy by childhood friend Dovid (Alessandro Nivola) — her father’s rabbinical protege — and somewhat more warmly by Esti (Rachel McAdams), who Ronit is shocked to learn has married Dovid.
If you’ve seen the trailers (or even the posters), you already know why she’s so surprised — the breakdown of Ronit’s bond with her father was the result of a romantic relationship with Esti, a scandal that led to her exile from their conservative community. Lelio contrasts the unrequited sexual tension between the two erstwhile lovers with the stolid social structure of their peers both thematically and visually, with Dovid’s almost ritualistic affections and obsession with keeping up appearances standing in stark opposition to the simmering passion brewing between Ronit and Esti. Lelio frames his leads with surreptitious closeups, tinting their stolen moments together with warm hues that break up the implacable monochrome of the harshly judgmental religious culture that threatens to suffocate them both.
One need only look at the two drastically different sex scenes featured in Disobedience to grasp Lelio’s point, couching the culturally mandated repression of identity in a viscerally carnal context. Weisz and McAdams play their characters’ distinctions with pitch-perfect pathos, Ronit’s open sensuality circling Esti’s taciturn desire as two polar forces of nature drawn toward an inevitable collision. And while Nivola, Weisz, and especially McAdams all elevate their respective roles admirably, it’s Lelio’s slow-burn structure that makes Disobedience so much greater than the sum of its parts — when Ronit and Esti finally reconnect in the second-act climax, it’s like watching two starving people stumble on an all-you-can-eat buffet — and the tension built up along the way is almost as unendurable for the audience as for the characters.
Disobedience is a study in oppositions, contrasting love and lust, freedom and obligation, without any shade of heavy-handed moralizing. Lelio has delivered a melodrama that skirts the pitfalls of its soap-opera-worthy premise by searching for the sacred in the salacious, and the result is a love story with a soul-churningly human heart. Rated R for some strong sexuality. Opens Friday at Fine Arts Theatre.