Chilean filmmaker Sebastián Lelio has been on a seemingly unstoppable roll since his award-winning 2013 breakthrough feature “Gloria”. That movie was such a success for Lelio, that he is directing the English-language remake starring Julianne Moore. Additionally, Lelio’s film “A Fantastic Woman” took home the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in early 2018.
For his English-language debut Lelio chose “Disobedience” (Bleecker Street). Based on the novel by Naomi Alderman, with a screenplay co-written by Lelio and Rebecca Lenkiewicz (who wrote the screenplay for Oscar-winner “Ida”), “Disobedience” takes viewers into a private world with which many are unfamiliar.
Set in an Orthodox Jewish community in London, “Disobedience” begins with the death of the beloved religious leader Rav Krushka (Anton Lesser). Krushka’s estranged daughter Ronit (Rachel Weisz), a New York-based photographer of renown, is notified of his death while at her studio. In a state of shock, Ronit processes the loss by having sex with a man in a bar’s bathroom stall and then going ice skating.
Still numb, Ronit makes it back to London in time for some of the mourning period. She arrives at the home of old friend Dovid (Alessandro Nivola), who was the rabbi’s closest disciple, spiritual son and presumed successor. There is some awkwardness. Dovid tells Ronit that they weren’t expecting her. She left suddenly years before, “disappeared” as someone says, and they lost contact with her. She leads a more secular life and has to be reminded of the limitations of her former society. Take the prohibition on hugging and physical contact, for example.
Most awkward of all is the revelation that Dovid has married Esti (Rachel McAdams). A formerly close trio of friends, the relationship between Ronit, Esti and Dovid splintered when Ronit’s father banished her from his home and life after catching her having sex with Esti. Shockingly, Esti, who never stopped loving Ronit, saw marriage to Dovid as her only path to safety and security.
Over the course of the few days that Ronit spends mourning for her father during his shiva, a number of startling events take place. After learning that she has been excluded from her father’s obituary, she discovers that her father’s will stipulates that his home and all of his belongings be left to the synagogue. During an uneasy sabbath dinner with Dovid, Esti, Ronit’s Uncle Moishe (Allan Corduner) and Aunt Fruma (Bernice Stegers), she realizes that her outspokenness and progressive thinking is unwelcome.
Perhaps the biggest shock of all comes when her presence reignites the all but extinguished flame of her and Esti’s mutual attraction. As they carefully try to resume where they left off – before they were caught by Ronit’s father years before – it becomes apparent that they each still have strong feelings for the other, and that it is impossible to do anything about it in their closely-watched district. It’s only a matter of time before they’re caught, rumors start circulating and lives are on the verge of systematic destruction.
Weisz may have the lead role, but it’s the performances of McAdams and Nivola that keep the audience riveted to “Disobedience”. Both actors turn in the strongest performances of their careers and deserve praise for their work. Rating: B