Disobedience shows culture is hard to walk away from

Film | by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

Opens June 1
Roxy Theatre
3 out of 5

Chilean director Sebastián Lelio, responsible for Gloria and the Academy Award winner A Fantastic Woman, has a knack for digging into women’s inner lives and putting his discoveries on display. The most obvious comparison is Almodóvar, although the South American is far more subtle and more with the times than the Spaniard.

Unlike so many of his peers, Sebastián Lelio’s sensibilities transfer seamlessly into larger films in different languages. Disobedience is Lelio’s first foray in English-language cinema. It’s an adaptation of the Naomi Alderman novel that’s far more stylized than any of his previous movies. Set in a hermetic Orthodox Jewish community in London, it follows fashion photographer Ronit (Rachel Weisz) as she reunites with her people for her father’s funeral.

Years before, Ronit was shunned by the community for a lesbian dalliance with childhood friend Esti (Rachel McAdams). While Ronit escaped to New York, Esti married a mutual acquaintance (Alessandro Nivola) in order to remain a member. The return of the “black sheep” stirs all kinds of feelings, but the reactions are not exactly obvious. To start with, they have a sense of humour about themselves.

The film is an effective, low-key character study. Rachel McAdams’ approach to her character’s inner conflict (desire vs. duty) stays away from melodrama. Esti is a feminist, but — unlike her former lover — she values tradition. Equally strong is Nivola as the would-be rabbi who loves his wife, but can’t stop his warm feelings for Ronit. The hardest love triangle to resolve is the one with three likeable corners.

For a fairly unknown setting, Disobedience unfolds with remarkable naturalism. It’s never in doubt we are embedded in an ultra-traditional Jewish community, yet the rituals and customs never bring attention to themselves. Older, more seasoned filmmakers struggle with this. Not Lelio.

Disobedience has attracted notoriety because of a sex scene between McAdams and Weisz. It’s less sweaty and more tender than advertised. Think Blue Is the Warmest Color, minus the acrobatics and much shorter.