Bruce Steele: For Chilean director Sebastián Lelio, Disobedience is quite a change of pace from A Fantastic Woman, don’t you think?
Edwin Arnaudin: I do, to the point that I found little to connect the two films thematically or stylistically — not that I’m complaining.
Bruce: Well, you could connect them loosely as films about women taking back their power. In this case, it’s Ronit (Rachel Weisz) and Esti (Rachel McAdams), who had an affair as teenagers that led to Ronit’s exile from their Orthodox Jewish community in London and her estrangement from her powerful rabbi father. Esti stayed behind and married their best friend, Dovid (Alessandro Nivola), the rabbi’s protégé. Now the rabbi is dead, Ronit has returned for his funeral, and Esti’s loyalty is up for grabs. The movie mostly takes Ronit’s point of view — as a chic New York photographer, she’s the outsider — but I found Esti became the more dynamic character. Who drew your attention?
Edwin: Honestly, it was Dovid. Nivola has been a reliable supporting player since breaking out (at least among the art set) in 2005’s NC-set Junebug, but I found his shortsighted apprentice fascinating in both the timbre of his voice and the unenviable situation in which he’s found himself. But Esti is a close second. She had to buy into their unfortunate union as well, and McAdams’ navigation of her newly-stoked emotions for Ronit yields quite the ride. By contrast, the conflicts with which Ronit contends — the loss of her father, communal shunning and a renewed passion (albeit as an unattached single person) — feel more manageable.
Bruce: Nivola is excellent and, in the way of fine character actors, almost unrecognizable. Weisz’s Ronit I mostly wanted to slap, and it’s clear she’s more a trigger for Esti than a real unrequited love. Indeed, Disobedience seems more about melancholy than about passion. Not only are the love scenes rather joyless, the whole movie is dimly lit (I think I saw sunshine twice) and claustrophobic. It has its rewards, but it’s not a fun movie, and it’s missing the righteous energy of A Fantastic Woman.
Edwin: Well, it is set in London, where humans long ago scorched the skies to thwart the machines’ power source — talk about a shortsighted plan — so a rare solar presence is understandable. I agree that I don’t necessarily buy Ronit and Esti as destined partners, but I found their kissing and sex scenes to be charged and believable. (Not that I’ve had longstanding crushes on both Rachels or anything…) Still, I’m with you on the overall film’s lack of joy and it not having a strong component to root for beyond Esti getting to be true to herself, which was generally enough to hold my attention. Do you feel like it’s too small of a film to make much of an impression?
Bruce: I wouldn’t call it a small film — not with its A-list cast and recent Oscar winner Lelio behind the camera. But I would call it restrained, both in narrative and visual style, which A Fantastic Woman was not. I realize that’s the point here, dealing with a lot of repressed characters drawn from British writer Naomi Alderman’s acclaimed 2006 novel. It’s not without hope, but it wisely eschews easy solutions or grand gestures. That may make it less appealing to audiences (and awards groups) looking for more drama in their dramas.
Edwin: The limited reach may be why it’s being released in May instead of November. Not to get too spoilery, but what do you think about the eventual revelation that sends the characters on the respective ways as the film concludes? I was fine with it in the moment, but minutes after the credits rolled, it started to feel cheap and convenient to me.
Bruce: It’s definitely convenient, and I remember thinking, “Ah, that old chestnut. Should have seen it coming.” But had the twist been better set up, it might have seemed even even cheaper. So I was OK with it. I thought each character’s resolution was true to their depiction to that point — especially the final image that sums up Ronit’s relationship to the world. Then we get Lelio’s latest ‘80s pop song over the end credits, The Cure this time, which amused me. Did the movie leave you feeling satisfied?
Edwin: Overall, yes. It comes back to the sticky situation in which the main characters have put themselves, the proverbial chickens coming home to roost and the exemplary way in which the performers convey these raw emotions. I found Dovid’s big decision and the reactions of Ronit and Esti to be especially moving — but in the way a well-written and acted play can knock you out, not so much on a cinematic level. At times I was reminded of Weisz’s underwhelming, stage-like Complete Unknown, though fortunately those flashbacks were infrequent. I recommend Disobedience, but the best I can give it is a strong B.
Bruce: That’s a fine and balanced analysis. I also recommend the movie for its performances and unusual subject matter — although those familiar with Orthodox Jewish traditions may find its portrayal of that community oversimplified. Still, it’s an engaging if bracingly sad story. I’ll concur with your B grade.
Grade: B. Rated R. Starts May 18 at the Fine Arts Theatre
(Photos: Bleecker Street Media)