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Before you have seen it, hearing about a lesbian drama called Disobedience may conjure up memories of the erotic thrillers of yore. In the ’90s, there was a string of kinky B-movies, like Body of Evidence or Basic Instinct, that attracted major female stars to the cast and salivating boys to the theater. Disobedience may also draw a few horny youngsters from the inferred promise of tawdry sex between its two famous Rachels—Weisz and McAdams—but they will get something far more moving. The film from Oscar-winning director Sebastian Lelio (A Fantastic Woman) is a perceptive human drama and a showcase for its talented stars, although it may be most noteworthy for how it becomes something other than what it promises.
Weisz plays Ronit, a New York photographer whose quasi-bohemian lifestyle is interrupted by the death of her father, a London rabbi. Her reaction to the news—instant sex with a stranger in a restaurant bathroom—hints at trouble under the surface, but the film smartly takes its time in revealing the scope of her sadness. She returns to the Orthodox Jewish community in which she was raised, and reconnects with two old friends: Dovid (Alessandro Nivola), who studied with her father as a boy and is now in line to take over as rabbi of the local synagogue, and Esti (McAdams), her teenage BFF and now a teacher at a girls’ school. Dovid and Esti are happily married. Ronit has other ideas.
There are lot of ways this could have gone. Disobedience could have simply opted for titillation and ended up on late-night Cinemax. Or it could have leaned on its indictment of an oppressive religion that prohibits same-sex love from flourishing. In some ways, it does both, but the humanistic script from Lelio and Rebecca Lenkiewicz refuses to turn its characters into symbols of their respective communities. Yes, Dovid is a Jew nervous about his leadership role in the community, but more often he is a husband who feels he is losing his wife and doesn’t understand why. It’s a marvelous performance by Nivola, hiding his smoldering good looks beneath a beard, glasses, and his character’s learned resistance to affection.
It’s a testament to the filmmaker’s sense of empathy that Dovid gets such meaningful characterization, when Disobedience is really about its women. Weisz and McAdams have conflicting styles and have taken divergent career paths, but their differences provide serious sparks here. Weisz’s gravity—her eyes seem to be permanently misty here—anchors the drama, while McAdams, who specializes in restrained neurosis, slowly and carefully unleashes her passions. McAdams has been wasted for too long as the underwritten love interest in films such as Aloha, Doctor Strange, and Southpaw. It’s remarkable what she can do in a film that understands her talents.
This trio of searing performances transforms Disobedience from a serviceable erotic drama or case against religion into something far more humanistic and, therefore, powerful. Consider the pallid color scheme used by cinematographer Danny Cohen: Colored material is largely forbidden in Orthodox communities, so we can credit some of this choice to verisimilitude, but the film extends its monochrome palette to its people, as well. The people’s faces are as pale as the dreary London fog. When we visit Esti in her classroom, however, and see her students clad in bright red sweaters, it’s visually shocking.
Is Lelio telling us that adulthood, and not religion, is the real oppressor here? A lesbian drama about Orthodox Jews might sound like a niche work, but Disobedience digs ever deeper and stuns you with how much truth it uncovers.
Disobedience opens Friday at Landmark E Street Cinema.