Disobedience begins with Rabbi Krushka, played by Anton Lesser, describing Hashem’s creation of the angels, the beasts and, finally, His fashioning of humans. We are in the formal and beautiful surrounds of an Orthodox London synagogue, but the solemnity of the architecture and of the occasion is contrasted with the joy on the rabbi’s face as he speaks of Hashem’s miracles – following Orthodox Jewish tradition, the name of God is never uttered in the film, and the replacement Hashem means literally “the name” or “the source”.
The camera frames the aged rabbi in close-up and the man’s rapture is almost childlike in its delight and wonder. He will collapse in the middle of his homily and it will be his death that will inaugurate the story. It’s a mark of director Sebastián Lelio’s acumen and instincts that he chose an actor of Lesser’s talent and resolute charisma for what is, on paper at least, such a small role. But that riveting opening is pivotal for the relationship we as an audience are to have with this film. We understand immediately the long shadow that the rabbi will cast over his family and his admirers. We comprehend, as well, how critically important faith and community have been to him.
Rachel Weisz is Ronit, the rabbi’s estranged daughter. She has been living in New York, working as a photographer, and when she returns to London for her father’s funeral her jet-lagged confusion and her almost surly diffidence mirror the audience’s bewilderment of where exactly we are and how everyone relates to the prodigal daughter. I should hasten to add that I don’t think there is anything accidental or clumsy in the framing and execution of these early scenes. Lelio wants us to be disoriented. The camera darts between faces and bodies, and we experience the depth of Ronit’s estrangement. Everyone is assembled at the house of Dovid Kuperman (Alessandro Nivola), who was Rabbi Krushka’s favoured student and is now possibly his successor. Very quickly, largely through the warmth and responsiveness between Weisz and Nivola, we perceive that there is a long and cherished history between Ronit and Dovid. Her relationship to Dovid’s wife, Esti (Rachel McAdams), seems more tentative and more bruised. Ronit accepts Dovid’s invitation to stay with them and, from there, over the period of mourning, we grasp the history between these three main characters as well as the turmoil unleashed by their memories.
As teenagers, the two women were lovers. Esti has subsequently chosen to honour tradition and faith over and above her sexuality and desires. But Ronit’s return undermines and makes her reassess those choices. The consequences of that realisation form the complex and moving drama of this film.
Chilean director Lelio’s previous film, A Fantastic Woman, was an entrancing and also deeply moving story about the effect of a patriarch’s death on a woman. In that film, Daniela Vega played Marina, a trans woman who had to navigate social and familial prejudices after the death of her lover. As also evident in his earlier film, 2013’s Gloria, Lelio is clearly fascinated by strong women who take risks in their romantic and sexual lives. In Gloria, Paulina García played the eponymous title character, a woman in her late 50s who risked opprobrium and ridicule in wanting to fulfil her erotic needs. I thought both these films were excellent but I now realise I underestimated Lelio’s intelligence and craft when it came to their success: I thought that they were effective largely due to the astonishing performances of, respectively, Vega and García. But with Disobedience, where the focus is shared generously and democratically between the three main characters, Lelio’s talents are at the fore.
It is possible that the challenges of working outside Chile, and also working for the first time on an English-language production, have roused and re-energised Lelio as a filmmaker. His films are always intimate, but the ideas and conception of this film feel bolder than in his previous work. Neither Jewish nor English, he manages to capture aspects of London that seem refreshingly new and unexploited. More importantly, he is faithful in his mise en scène to the specific rituals and formalities of Orthodox Jewish tradition and expression – to how one prays, in the choreography of how men and women interact physically – while at the same time capturing the banality of the domestic settings in which much of this ritual takes place. Lelio assumes that most in the audience will be unfamiliar with this world, but he doesn’t feel the need to explain it for us. He doesn’t give in to the temptation of making it exotica either. Undoubtedly, he is assisted here by the understated classicism of his cinematographer, Danny Cohen, and by the acuity of his fellow scriptwriter, Rebecca Lenkiewicz. Cohen is a master of light, in capturing the luminosity of faces and skin, as well as finding moments of ravishing beauty in the most quotidian of suburban locations. Lenkiewicz and Lelio’s script is based on a novel by Naomi Alderman, and though there are moments of awkwardness, largely due, I think, to condensing Esti’s story to a narrative arc that fits into the limited time frame of the film, it is also thankfully a script that prioritises complexity and ambiguity. Lelio has been a great collaborator with actors from the start of his filmmaking career, but my sense is that his collaborations on Disobedience – with his actors, with his co-writer, with his cinematographer, with his editor, Nathan Nugent, with the composer, Matthew Herbert – have worked to hone his instincts as a filmmaker. I think this is by far Lelio’s most accomplished film.
In the end, the wisdom of having him as director is vindicated in the crucial eroticism of the film. In a lovely and quiet scene early on, Dovid is surrounded by yeshiva students, and they are studying that most exquisite and most confounding of biblical books, The Song of Songs. Of course there are British and North American directors who would be capable of expressing the tantalising dance of the profane and the sacred that is at the heart of that ancient love poem. But I suspect that the contemporary paranoia and masochism that dominates the politics of representation in the anglophone world would have compromised both the attentiveness to faith and the celebration of the erotic that Lelio brings to this film. Latin American cinema has been undergoing a significant renaissance this past decade, also marked by an equivalent energy and strength in Spanish- and Portuguese-language queer film. The particular histories and trajectories of such cinema are too complicated to enunciate within a review, but what is clear in works by such filmmakers as Marco Berger in Argentina or the recent queer cinema of Brazil and Chile – and which mark them as different to much of American film – is that they are unapologetically celebratory of sex while recognising how class and economics mark out differences not only in one’s sexuality but in one’s physicality and body. Lelio’s work is both an integral part of such cinema and also deeply influenced by it.
His gaze is truly pansexual, and we are aroused both by the sensuality and love between Ronit and Esti as well as by the virile grace of Nivola’s Dovid. This is a film in which we are remarkably aware of the physicality of cloth and fabric, of how the characters dress and undress, as much as we are responding to skin and flesh. Other directors might have fixated on the repression that girds monotheistic spiritual faith; or they might have denuded Esti and Dovid’s marriage of mutual desire. That the filmmakers have consciously eschewed such depictions marks the sensitivity of the film. As do the dedicated and powerful performers. This is peak work from Weisz, McAdams and Nivola.
The rabbi’s words at the beginning of the film cannot but alert us to the profound consequences of the film’s title. In the Abrahamic traditions, it was disobedience that was humanity’s original sin, and as such the beginning of all calamity and all suffering. At the same time, in emerging from a will and a choice not given to the angels or to the beasts, disobedience is also the root of our freedom. Disobedience is attuned to the strictures that can be suffocating in religious communities, and the filmmakers, of course, vindicate both Ronit’s and Esti’s desires for liberation and freedom. But the mark of the maturity of this film is that this vindication doesn’t come at the cost of demonising Dovid or his faith.
In her disobedience, in her freedom, there are things that Ronit has lost. “Are you happy?” It’s a question people ask of each other in this film, the faithful and the unbelieving. They might answer, “Yes, I’m happy”, but we come to understand that both the question and the response are inevitably simplistic and inadequate. Happiness is transitory: it’s in the moment of the rabbi’s bliss in understanding he is close to Hashem; it’s there when a husband sniffs his wife’s neck and delights in her scent; there when a woman kisses her beloved’s cunt. Moments profound and fleeting. There are risks in all things, in obedience and in disobedience.
MUSIC Open Frame: Room 40
Carriageworks, Sydney, June 28 – 29
OPERA The Merry Widow
QPAC, Brisbane, until June 30
MUSIC Festival of Voices
Venues throughout Tasmania, June 29 – July 15
CLASSICAL ACO Presents: Steven Isserlis plays Shostakovich
City Recital Hall, Sydney, June 30 – July 4
OPERA Lucia di Lammermoor
Sydney Opera House, June 28 – July 27
CULTURE Darker Days
Bright Brewery, Victoria, June 20-26
THEATRE Brothers Wreck
Odeon Theatre, Adelaide, June 27 – July 14
MUSIC Laurie Anderson: Concert For Dogs
Home of the Arts, Gold Coast, June 24
TAPESTRY The Lady and the Unicorn
Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, until June 24
CULTURE Reclink Community Cup
Victoria Park, Melbourne, June 24
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 23, 2018 as "Teaching stricture". Subscribe here.