Not ten months since Sebastián Lelio walked away from February’s Oscars with an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language, the Chilean-Argentine director returns to UK screens with another tremendous feature, this one his English language debut. Thought provoking but no less thoroughly cinematic, Disobedience continues A Fantastic Woman’s explorations of sexuality and normative entrapment, whilst adding concerns of religious liberty and expectation. A sublime trio of leading performances make for an elegant cherry on the cake.
Taking their narrative from Naomi Alderman’s novel of the same name, Lelio and co-writer Rebecca Lenkiewicz have crafted an exquisitely well-conceived adaptation, which builds glacially but with total assurance to a hugely satisfying conclusion. A delightful, spirited score from Matthew Herbert – the current creative director of the BBC’s revived Radiophonic Workshop – employs strings and pipes to lift what could easily have been a dour experience to something far more complex and ultimately uplifting. There are none of A Fantastic Woman’s beguiling flights of fantasy here but Lelio does well to imply that such sensual experiences are still present in this world, just suppressed by stuffy tradition and hegemonic dynamics.
Rachel Weisz continues her blistering run of recent roles – see also My Cousin Rachel and The Favourite – as Ronit Krushka, the estranged daughter of a Jewish rabbi (Anton Lesser’s briefly appearing Rav Krushka) who returns from a life rebuilt in New York for her father’s funeral. In a monologue delivered in the fashion of an abstract for all that will follow, the film opens with the ageing Rav delivery a sermon on the nature of free will, not to mention mankind’s unique capacity for disobedience, before coughing his last. Whispers, stolen glances and an aura of bristling tension tease at the rupture that split daughter from father as she returns but it quickly becomes clear that it was routed in the triangular relationship of Ronit and her childhood friends Esti (Rachel McAdams) and David (Alessandro Nivola), who have married in her absence.
Above Lelio’s thick atmosphere, Danny Cohen has applied a suitably subdued colour scheme, with the effect being both cohesive with the film’s tone and intelligent counterposed to the warmth and passion that is gradually permitted to come forth. Such transitions, much like the abundance of symbols scattered across the screen and script, are delivered in nuance rather than by any explicit motion and there is great pleasure to be had in identifying these. Esti is a teacher and, of course, her class are currently studying Shakespeare’s tragedy of deception, ‘Othello’. Ronit, meanwhile, is renowned for taking her coffee black and, in one scene, is seen to enjoy an apple strudel. Everything and anything could mean anything and everything in Lelio’s vision for the story; even if it doesn’t, it is quite the achievement for a film to so quickly attract analytic thought from its audience.
Holding fort within this rich world are Lelio’s three remarkable leads. Pious, softly spoken and achingly human, Nivola excels as a man driven by rational morality but torn by his own intimate sensibilities. When Esti’s secret is revealed, we do not know how David will react – the ‘Othello’ link was a foreboding omen – but Nivola wordlessly conveys the pain of a man who is trying to work out exactly that. Alongside, Weisz and McAdams impress with a power that is often similarly silent. Whilst Weisz seems effortlessly at ease in portraying the confident, yet in some respects lonely, Ronit, McAdams delivers a heartbreaking, perhaps even career-best, polar parallel. When the pair share Lelio’s stage, little else is worth watching. This is a hugely compelling romance.