Filmmaker Sebastián Lelio is one who is adept at exposing societal orthodoxy through his layered and, often, shocking screenplays. His films are seen to cleverly juxtapose a taboo subject to surroundings that are disturbingly conventional. In his Academy Award-winning transgender drama A Fantastic Woman, Lelio examined how a traditional family system gets dismantled when a person of the third gender becomes a stakeholder in its affairs. In a far superior film Gloria, the aging protagonist sought sexual pleasures giving zero damns to everyone around. In comparison, the writer-director’s latest film Disobedience might come out a little less telling and alarmingly low in volumes as it attempts to integrate two explosive ideas – religion and homosexuality.
As she is introduced, the film’s New York-bound protagonist Ronit (Rachel Weisz) is seen photographing a tattooed gentleman (don’t miss the sly religion reference there). She is soon informed of her estranged father’s death in London. Ronit zooms off to her city, only to be welcomed by cold faces and reluctant glances. Lelio’s writing has a certain slow-burn technique through which the revelations unfold lazily but are of sufficient impact. There she meets her ex-flame Esti (Rachel McAdams) whom she, surprisingly, finds married to a childhood friend, Dovid (Alessandro Nivola). Slowly and steadily Lelio unties the complexities involved in the mess that involves several conventional institutions such as religion, marriage, parenthood, education, and more.
Centered on Judaism, Dovid is shown to be Ronit’s deceased father’s prime disciple and successor. Now, that is an immediate connection to God, if one might ask. Then again, a connection is also what his wife Esti seeks in Ronit. A connection is what lacks in Esti’s loveless marriage to Dovid – which Ronit slyly points out later in a completely different discussion. In an awkward yet incessantly fascinating conversation over a group dinner, Ronit is asked why she had to change her name for the profession’s sake. Esti is quick to add how a woman’s identity assumes new colours once she gets married. Now, this isn’t remotely the most noteworthy moment in the film. Yet one needs to applaud Lelio’s skills at staging the scene the way it is and making his character speak volumes about their aspirations in absence of direct, clear-cut exchanges.
The controversial love-making scenes between Weisz and McAdams have been treated with great care and sensitivity. They also do not charter the explicit territories a la Blue is The Warmest Color even though the shock value is omnipresent – more so, from the way they are devised in the screenplay. The film moves in a placid note, only to gauge momentum towards the finale which is elevated by a thunderous (clumsy in demeanour) pre-climactic speech by Dovid, which is perhaps the most vocal segment in Disobedience after the aforementioned dinner table scene. The portion brings the religion angle in the story to the forefront as he talks about choice, freedom et al.
As Disobedience closes with its heart wrenching final shot, one tends to ponder over the film’s recurring line, “May you live a long life”. There is so much that it conveys – at times taking sarcastic intonations – without judging its characters, their instincts, or ambitions. Furthermore, Esti who begs her husband for her ‘freedom’ at one point in the film clearly learns her the ‘choices’ as her story evolves. Somewhere we realize that it is in the film’s ability to underplay that we truly feel the volcano within. That one of the moments where Esti and her students discuss the handkerchief in Othello, followed by the headmistress summoning her for a warning is telling enough to prove this point.
Rating: ★★★ 1/2