Fresh off his deeply endearing Oscar-winning ‘A Fantastic Woman,’ Sebastián Lelio’s newest feature all but confirms that the Chilean filmmaker is a force of reckoning.
It seems that the more time we spend on this Earth, the more we begin to realize that humanism and sexuality go hand-in-hand. One cannot exist without the other, ensuring that sexuality become a point of identity to our modernist sensibilities. After all, nothing reciprocates emotional and psychological connection better than the physical affirmation of those feelings. And while sexuality has far more forms of expressing itself than society cares to admit, it seems that the corporeal manifestation of it is perhaps as powerful as any other shape of it, a quality that Sebastián Lelio plays with in his newest feature, Disobedience.
Set in the Hasidic neighborhood of London, Ronit Krushka (Rachel Weisz) has returned after many estranged years for the funeral of her Rabbi father, Rav Krushka. Once there sees familiar faces some of whom are friendly, others malicious. One of those friendly faces is her childhood friend Dovid Kuperman (Alessandro Nivola), who had been Rav’s protégé. She soon discovers that her other childhood friend Esti (Rachel McAdams) has married Dovid, who have both totally engrossed themselves into Hasidic traditions. Ronit feels like a fish out of water around the wig-wearing women and tzitzit-clad men who have nothing more to say to Ronit than, “may you have a long life.” But around her childhood friends, Ronit is at ease. That is, before she reignites a long-lost love affair with the closeted Esti. It was this clandestine and shunned exploration of sexuality with Esti, that led to Ronit’s exile all those years ago. Now facing one of the most difficult choices in her life, Esti must decide whether she will finally break free and lead the life she so desperately wants to have.
As was the case with the poignantly tender A Fantastic Woman, Sebastián Lelio delves back into similar themes of acceptance, alienation, sexuality, passion, and desire. It seems the director is entranced with the complex emotional undertones of expression of love and fighting for one’s right to be true to oneself. Indeed, Lelio once again relies on third-person shaky tracking shots to invoke the sense of controlled chaos that is swirling around the near-hyperventilating Ronit as she walks toward her father’s bereaved household. She is apprehensive and yet emboldened to confront the emotions that were scurried under the rug all those years ago, returning to not only say goodbye to her devoted father but to confront the emotionally charged tête-à-tête tryst that she once had with Esti.
It’s a difficult moment for all those involved, a difficulty that is amplified by ever watchful eye of the Hasidic community, who seem to know every tidbit of gossip and rumor before it even comes to fruition. The complexity of the situation is augmented by the powerful performances by the three members of this love triangle, particularly Rachel Weisz, who plays her role delicately and yet with vitality, regret, and timidity. It’s a coalescence of emotions that is equally matched by the quiet passion of Alessandro Nivola who’s turn as a conflicted rabbi is brilliantly understated and reserved. And while McAdams can at times be a bit too rash in her reactive difficulties, it nonetheless takes away from the film’s impactful narrative. It makes for a beautifully humanist melodrama, one that Douglas Sirk and his contemporary Todd Haynes would be inspired to see. But perhaps that adherence to melodramatic tropes ensures that the ending of this film—which is set to be the most important moment of the picture—is perhaps too one-dimensional in its need to showcase narrative peripeteia. Perhaps a nod to the tonal complexity of the emotional standing of Esti, Ronit and Dovid would have served the film better in providing a richer tapestry of earnest expressiveness. Alas, we are served a neatly packaged ending that will surely leave audience’s satisfied albeit simplistically so.
Verdict: 4 out of 5
Sebastián Lelio’s Disobedience is a touching melodrama that showcases the powerful emotions that make us love, desire, and reimagine what our lives should be. From the spellbinding performances of Weisz and Nivola to the adeptly well-paced editing and the significant use of mise-en-scène, Disobedience is a wonderfully touching film that proves that an overbearing patriarchy can be the most devastating influence on one’s life. And while the film’s ironic obedience (this pun is very much intended) to melodramatic tropes can at times take away from the complexity set during the course of the film, Disobedience is nonetheless another success for the Chilean filmmaker.