Chilean filmmaker Sebastián Lelio has quickly grown to become a major figure in world cinema, with his most internationally acclaimed titles empathetically depicting the emotional struggles of women who don’t fit into perceived societal norms. There’s no wonder he’s been labelled by many as a successor to Spanish director Pedro Almodovar, and his English language debut Disobedience only furthers that comparison. Set within London’s Orthodox Jewish community, the film depicts the complicated relationship between two women born into this world, whose paths in life have deviated after an earlier affair.
But Lelio’s masterstroke is how he manages to sidestep overly familiar discussions on sexuality and religious prejudice in order to examine the very nature of freewill when it comes to accepting a love frowned upon by your belief system. It’s a film equal parts romantic and philosophical, conclusive proof that Lelio is one of the finest filmmakers working today – and one of the best films of 2018 full stop.
Adapted from Naomi Alderman’s controversial 2006 novel of the same name, Disobedience follows Ronnit Krushka (Rachel Weisz) the estranged daughter of a beloved rabbi who has long since fled to New York to pursue a career as a photographer. Upon hearing about the sudden death of her father, she returns to the London community where she grew up to pay her respects, and finds herself to be something of a ghost. She may be welcomed with open arms and shown kindness, yet her existence as her father’s only child has been whitewashed out of her father’s newspaper obituary, and a renewed social tension has emerged due to the nature of a previous affair with Esti Kuperman (Rachel McAdams).
Esti is now married to her father’s apprentice Rabbi Dovid Kuperman (Alessandro Nivola) who lets her stay in their upper middle class home. Since they last saw each other, Esti has become a pillar of the local community, teaching English literature at a local girl’s school. The only thing setting her back from true happiness is that she is incapable of feeling physical attraction to men, knowing that confessing otherwise could jeopardise her devout faith – something that gets more complicated when she slowly rekindles the relationship she forged with Ronnit many years prior.
In many ways, Disobedience is a companion piece to Lelio’s recent Oscar winner A Fantastic Woman. That film followed a young transgender woman (Daniela Vega) grieving for the death of her older boyfriend, but contending with his family who couldn’t accept her true identity and romantic position in their father’s life. Disobedience is the other side of the same story, dealing not with prejudice, but with the numerous factors in a person’s life that can stop them accepting their true identity – and how that struggle intensifies following the passing of a loved one.
There are other little callbacks to A Fantastic Woman throughout, both in storytelling and style. There’s the narrative motif of finding closure through a mysterious set of keys, that lead to the only items in the will that the characters haven’t been forcibly blocked from obtaining. Then there’s also the dreamlike score from Matthew Herbert, which uses similar compositions to his work for A Fantastic Woman, and pushes a realistic tale of societal acceptance into the realms of magical realist escapism, and swooningly romantic closure.
Lelio’s background in documentary filmmaking has drawn him repeatedly towards depicting characters and communities where he is a self-confessed “outsider”, with no personal connection to the material. Working with co-screenwriter Rebecca Lenkiewicz (who co-wrote the screenplay for another Oscar winning foreign language film – 2014’s Polish drama Ida), he’s managed to create an empathetic film that doesn’t feel like the work of a tourist attempting to ingratiate himself into a world he doesn’t understand. This is also thanks to the performances from Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams, which I don’t hesitate to call the career bests for both actresses. They perfectly communicate the frailty that comes with seeing a former flame following the aftermath of a sudden end to the relationship, and the separate anxieties the two share about the developing nature of their romance.
Despite the marketing campaign, where trailers and posters have fixated on intimate moments between the pair, this is not an overtly sexualised film, caring more about the complications that stem from developing a relationship rather than that relationship’s consummation. In the film’s sole sex scene between Ronnit and Esti, Lelio proves himself to be one of the few directors with no desire to depict the sex with a “male gaze” that would otherwise undermine the true emotions of this developing partnership. The sequence feels tender, rather than sexy – an earnest attempt at a deeper connection from two women who can’t find happiness in anybody but each other, even after all these years.
After a banner year for LGBT cinema in 2017, this year gets off to a great start with Disobedience. This delicately handled tale of romance and acceptance is likely to remain one of the finest films of the year, as well as being further proof (if any were needed) that Sebastián Lelio is a director whose films we are going to be cherishing for some time to come.