Four years after delving deep into the romantic troubles of a singles-bar-haunting fiftysomething in “Gloria,” and a few months after casting a sensitive eye on a young transgender waitress in the wake of tragedy in “A Fantastic Woman,” Chilean director Sebastian Lelio offers yet another striking and warmly nuanced portrait of the kinds of women whose internal lives are rarely portrayed on screen, tackling a lesbian love affair within London’s Orthodox Jewish community in “Disobedience.” Taking on his first English-language feature, he directs Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams in an adaptation of Naomi Alderman’s novel, which begins as a case study in religious repression and gradually evolves into something much richer. Slower and more deliberate than some of his recent work, though anchored by a remarkably honest and unrestrained sex scene, “Disobedience” may not catapult Lelio beyond the arthouse world, but it’s yet another triumph in what’s shaping up to be a major career.
Also serving as a producer, Weisz was the one who initially optioned Alderman’s book, and here she plays Ronit, an artistically-minded, single British expat working as a photographer in New York. In the middle of a shoot, she receives word that her estranged father (Anton Lesser), a powerful Orthodox rabbi, has died. (We glimpse him the opening scene, delivering a sermon about free will that haunts the film like a soft minor key melody.) We learn a lot about Ronit by the way she grieves – a long walk, a few drinks, a drunken hookup in a bathroom stall – and she’s soon on a plane to London. Arriving back home, she’s barely let in the door by Dovid (Alessando Nivola), her childhood friend and her father’s longtime spiritual protégé, so shocked is he to see her back.
Everyone is shocked to see her back. We never get the full details on what drove her to flee the community, but the fact that she reflexively tries to hug Dovid – an observer of negiah, the prohibition on physical contact between men and women outside of family or marriage – tells us just how long she’s been away. She can only manage a few minutes of the cold stares at the reception before she’s retreated to the kitchen, with only Dovid seeming to acknowledge that her loss of a father, however distant their relationship, deserves the same respect as the neighborhood’s loss of a rabbi. (She isn’t even mentioned in the obituary.)
Yet the biggest jolt comes when she sees Esti (McAdams), her childhood best friend, now married to Dovid. A timid, tired-eyed schoolteacher, Esti scarcely seems like the kind of person who could have ever gone to-to-toe with the outspoken Ronit, but the two were more than just friends: they were teenage lovers. Exactly to what extent, and to whose knowledge, is purposely left vague, but the two hesitantly feel each other out over the next few days, with the eventual rekindling of their affair always at risk of attracting a prying eye.
Ronit may be the film’s primary protagonist, but Esti is its heart, and McAdams crafts a character unlike any we’ve yet seen from her. At times, the actress almost seems to be consciously struggling to stifle the sort of effortless magnetism she usually exudes, but so too is her character; it isn’t until Esti boldly takes a drag off of Ronit’s cigarette midway through the film that we see her fully exhale. While Ronit is eager to create miniature firestorms among her devout extended family – particularly during a Shabbat dinner scene that’s shot through with matzo-dry humor – Esti takes her faith and her community seriously, and Ronit’s arrival has a shattering effect on the incomplete yet nonetheless meaningful life she had managed to forge in her absence.
The film – at times a tad too somber for its own good – loosens up as the two finally stop talking around the margins of their past, with a few stolen alleyway kisses leading up to a rendezvous in a hotel. This scene, which has already drawn rather misleading comparisons to “Blue Is the Warmest Color,” is certainly unabashed, at times startlingly so, but it manages to be explicit without suggesting male-gaze voyeurism is the primary force lurking behind it. Its eroticism serves a function, and the two women’s sense of abandon is all the more significant in contrast to Esti’s dutiful, passionless weekly sex with Dovid.
In a lesser film, Dovid would merely serve as an obstacle to Ronit and Esti’s affair, but Lelio regards him with far more sympathy as he juggles his desire to do right by the two women in his life with the suspicions of the community whose shul he’s about to take over. No flat personification of religious rigidity, he’s a fundamentally decent man who faces choices every bit as difficult as his wife’s, and he’s fully inhabited by a career-best performance from Nivola. None of these three characters are tidy, but neither is desire, nor faith, nor love, and Lelio resists every opportunity to make them so. As the rabbi preaches at the start of the film, free will is both a gift and a burden, and freedom is impossible without accepting a degree of loss.