Part social realist, part fabulist, Sebastián Lelio makes films that often ask audiences to rethink their biases and do better by the victimized and ostracized. But at its most explicit, his approach is ponderous and pedantic. A Fantastic Woman, about a trans woman who suffers one indignity after another in the wake of her lover’s death, is less of a challenge than an incessant finger wag: that we’re supposed to be better than this. We are, of course, but there’s a sense that Daniela Vega’s Marina exists as a tabula rasa—a mere receptacle for the monstrousness of others—so as to ensure that this message is delivered to us as loudly and as clearly as possible.
If you believe that, then Disobedience’s opening sequence may be cause for alarm. A rabbi, Rav Kruschka (Anton Lesser), delivers a sermon at a North London synagogue about angels and beasts, free will, and choosing the tangled lives we live. His tone is doctrinaire, poisonous even, so it’s perhaps no surprise that the frail-looking man drops dead on the spot. Meanwhile in New York, his daughter, Ronit (Rachel Weisz), is seen putting his words into action—less person than exemplar. Ronit, a photographer, is in session when she receives a phone call, presumably the one alerting her to her father’s death, after which she’s seen impassively skating around an ice rink, with a time-out for a random hookup with a man inside a bathroom stall.
Just as we hardly know it’s London that Ronit returns to and that it’s New York where she lives, we hardly know this woman. Lelio’s eschewing of the specifics of place makes sense though, as the London and New York of this film aren’t exactly poles of desire for Ronit. But while we’ll learn why she turned her back on the Orthodox world she was born into, the textures of her personhood will remain foreign to us. For one, we’ll never comprehend why exactly she chooses to photograph any part of that or any other world. Here, it’s as if her camera only exists to allow for the moment where she asks to take her long-ago lover’s photograph, but in this scene, like the film’s final one, there isn’t even a sense that Ronit is looking to reclaim something that was never hers.
Everyone in Disobedience is representative and every scene is declarative, and up to a point it feels as if the film is entirely following in A Fantastic Woman’s footsteps. Indeed, instead of an on-the-nose needle drop of “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” we get an on-the-nose needle drop of the Cure’s “Love Song.” With the help of her old lover, Esti Kuperman (Rachel McAdams), Ronit goes to her father’s home to gather some belongings. Seeing an old radio, Ronit turns it on and instantly lands on the one station playing the one song whose lyrics most completely speak to the situation that these two women find themselves in: “You make me feel like I am home again/Whenever I’m alone with you/You make me feel like I am whole again.”
The triumph of Disobedience is how the performances and style exteriorize the interior worlds of the characters.
But many us can remember a time where it seemed as if every song on the radio was in conversation with the heartache of a bad breakup. Lelio is nothing if not a romantic, and it’s around the point that Ronit and Esti find themselves alone for the first time in however many years that the film’s style vibrantly keys itself to the characters’ passions. The magical realism that A Fantastic Woman flirts with is Disobedience’s guiding principle. Lelio increasingly embraces symmetry, and he positions persons within the frame in totemic fashion, with the dollops of Matthew Herbert’s dazzling musique concrète-style score underlying the sense that the characters are entering a trance of their own making. It’s perhaps natural that Lelio films Ronit and Esti finally talking about their romantic past in a single long take, and it’s some kind of masterstroke how the tension of their reminiscences and flirtations is rhymed to our wonderment over when the shot will dare to cut away.
Lelio’s actors help him to gild the lily of his style, and miraculously so, because Weisz, McAdams, and Alessandro Nivola, as Esti’s husband and Ronit’s childhood friend, Dovid, fill in the script’s gaps in characterization. Esti, at first glance, is another type: an obsequious adherent to orthodoxy. When she passionately kisses Dovid, you understood the gesture as compensatory, to convey that I’m just not that into her anymore. But then McAdams caps the moment by quickly playing with Nivola’s beard, and the actress subtly communicates the sense of the genuine love that exits between this husband and wife—an impression that’s confirmed when Esti later repeats the gesture with Ronit. Only theirs is a different kind of love, and we finally get a sense of what that is when, during a tryst in a hotel room, Ronit casually sends a stream of her spit into Esti’s mouth. This moment feels organically, almost miraculously stumbled upon—arrived at by two great actors wanting to convey the singular nature of their characters’ communion.
Disobedience also benefits from its fairness of judgment. Lelio understands that the community at the center of the film is rooted in old-school tradition, but as it’s physically rooted in a cultural capital of the world, no one here is a stranger to gays and lesbians, and so the reactions to Ronit and Esti’s rekindled love affair never rise to the level of the hysteric. Whether at a dinner table or in the midst a religious practice, men and especially women play their roles with an almost self-aware sense of expectation. Ronit is asked at one point why she isn’t married, and while her response rankles, it’s understood as a matter of course. In fact, in the subtlest of glances exchanged between the women of this community, one senses a certain respect for Ronit having broken away from tradition to find her own path through life.
Ronit, Esti, and Dovid—in another sign of the film’s generosity of perspective—are all freighted with a despair that’s understood to be self-created. Esti may have the courage to admit to Ronit that she’s only attracted to women, but she isn’t so brave to stand by her when they’re caught kissing by some friends and her survival instinct kicks in and she bolts from the scene. In the end, Disobedience is less about the subjugation of the self to the group than the courage to embrace uncertainty if one were to break out of the prison of a world one has been born into. And the triumph of the film is the balletic gracefulness with which the performances and style exteriorize the interior worlds of the characters—how voluptuously alive the film’s layered approach to melodrama is to people hesitatingly approaching the bridge to freedom.