In the most charged scene in Disobedience, a wig is removed. It’s a simple gesture, vulnerable but routine. Yet the effect is as breathless and intimate as the removal of clothing or the release of a long-held sob. It’s one of many such moments in a film in which the simple things speak volumes, where the stakes are high because everybody’s trying, but everybody’s also hiding. A wig comes off, and a person is transformed. A man nods, and a life is changed. A woman takes a photo, and peace is found.
Director Sebastián Lelio (A Fantastic Woman) is no stranger to storytelling that cherishes the humanity of its subject. What makes Disobedience — adapted by Lelio and Rebecca Lenkiewicz from Naomi Alderman’s novel of the same name — unusual is that there’s not one character at the center, there are three. Four, if you count the tightly-knit community in which they exist (or existed). Five, if you count the dead man whose presence looms over the story. Seven, eight, nine, and ten if you count faith, truth, instinct, and death. That may sound like a lot, but that’s the territory into which Disobedience marches in the first few minutes. Sometimes it earns those heights. At others, it leans a little hard on the gas pedal. But even when it’s a bit much, it earns your attention and your compassion.
A rabbi (Anton Lesser) speaks, with potent conviction, about humanity, spirituality, free will, and instinct. Then he falls to the floor. When word of his death reaches his daughter Ronit (Rachel Weisz), who’s living a secular life in New York, she travels back to England and the Orthodox community she left behind. On arriving, she reaches out to an old friend, Dovid (Alessandro Nivola), who despite some obvious discomfort welcomes her into his home and asks her to stay. She’s also greeted by his wife, Esti (Rachel McAdams), the third point in a triangle that anchored their formative years. When Ronit discovers that her father failed to recognize her in his obituary or his will, she returns to her childhood to say goodbye, accompanied by Esti, and a long-dormant romance is rekindled. It threatens everything and everyone around them, clearing a path for heartbreak and loss, but also for honesty and joy.
Lesser’s sole scene in the film is a knockout, over-the-top but grounded, a display of what can only be called powerful frailty. It’s a hell of an opener, and indicative of the quality of performances throughout the film. Even those whose appearances are limited to a few scenes make an impression; there’s nothing so simple as a shameless, shallow bigot or a generically kind grandmother. It’s a testament to both the writing and the cast that everyone is more complicated than they might be in a less thoughtful film, and that’s truest of Dovid. Nivola plays Dovid as a man who’s all round edges, a person whose cruelties are still somehow rooted in kindness. Lelio lets the camera linger on Dovid as he listens, thinks, and observes with great frequency. His struggles are palpable. Nivola makes the searching of one’s heart, soul, and conscience a physical effort.
Most films would falter when the story passed into Dovid’s hands, and it’s a surprise that Disobedience doesn’t. Still, his is the point on the triangle that’s the least vital, and it’s with Esti and Ronit (and thus McAdams and Weisz) that the film spends most of its emotional energy. Ronit’s stunned reaction to the death of her father cements the first (and bits of the second) half of the film. An early sequence makes apparent the skill of both Lelio and Weisz, as Ronit processes her own grief, alone, at an ice rink. It’s a simple scene, shot matter-of-factly, which relies on Weisz’s seemingly bottomless well of emotional availability and complexity. It’s a well that gets a hell of a workout once Ronit arrives back in town, as Weisz layers emotion after emotion into even the simplest interactions. When she first sees Dovid, joy wars with discomfort, sadness with fondness; she instinctively moves to hug him before remembering where she is and that such things aren’t allowed, but even the aborted movement is loaded with meaning and used to communicate feeling. That’s one beat in one interaction. There are many, many others.
It’s that care for the small moments that defines McAdams’ performance, as well. As indicated by her Oscar-nominated (yet sadly underappreciated) performance in Spotlight, McAdams has a gift for showing the skill with which a person can hide a storm of emotion, and knowing when to let that facade crack, ever so slightly. It would be easy to mistake Esti’s early scenes as pleasantly forgettable, but this is a person who has spent her entire life learning to be pleasant and forgettable. McAdams and Lelio together underline the moments where the mask slips — when she first sees Ronit, when she’s goaded into speech at a Shabbat dinner, and especially when she prepares to re-enter the classroom in which she feels most at home. There’s no hand-holding here: either you see Esti’s performance for what it is, or she’s fooled you, just as she tries to fool those who populate her life.
When the walls finally fall, when the story unites Ronit’s story and Esti’s story, the film soars. The camera leaves behind its respectable distance and its tendency to peek from around corners and shoulders and asserts itself in this love story. Their reunion, and the years worth of truth and pain that come cannonballing out of Esti’s mouth, are worthy of a front-row seat. In their first few kisses it wouldn’t be shocking if Esti’s breath somehow fogged up the lens, and that is not a sexy metaphor. Her breath is that present, and Lelio is intent on an intimacy so pronounced that it’s almost biological.
In that scene, and the love scenes that follow, Lelio accomplishes something that’s sadly rare. Though the connection between Esti and Ronit is clearly emotional and affectionate, heightened by years of longing and willful forgetting, it’s also unabashedly physical and sexual. Once that gate is opened, there’s no reversing it. Even when the pair walk down the street, they do so at a pace that suggests a fervent need to get behind closed doors, or at least into some dark corner where they can finally put hands and mouths on each other again. And when that physical connection becomes more explicit, neither the performers nor Lelio shy away from it — and yet never, at any point, does it feel exploitative.
It’s not all perfect. In the scene in Ronit’s childhood home where Ronit and Esti finally acknowledge the elephant in the room, Ronit turns on a radio. The Cure’s “Love Song” is playing. Not only is it playing, but it’s coincidentally cued up to the lyric, “Whenever I’m alone with you / You make me feel like I am home again.” While she’s home again. While they’re alone. It’s a choice so on-the-nose that it blows a hole in an otherwise perfect sequence, and the failure of the characters to acknowledge the ludicrousness of the moment marks one of the rare points at which the performances and the script feel less than honest. That’s by far the most egregious example of the film’s occasional reluctance to chill, but it’s not the only one.
Disobedience also lacks the moments of rhapsodic cinematography that peppered A Fantastic Woman, but it offers fireworks of a different kind. Costume designer Odile Dicks-Mireaux helps to emphasize this by draping all three of the film’s central characters in clothing that reflects or rejects the others, or the world in which they live. Outside of a few desperately, almost ferociously passionate kisses, this isn’t a film that will scream out for inclusion in highlight reels or GIF-based tributes. Instead, it stuns in what it shows, and in what it doesn’t. Esti, wigless, discovers the woman she might have been and could still be as she poses for a photograph, perched on a hotel bed. Ronit stands still, expressionless, yet her body screams out her need to be enveloped by those she loves. Dovid delivers a speech to dozens, but with the tiniest gesture, makes it clear to whom he’s really reaching out.
The performances, like the film, are rich, layered things of tremendous feeling and complexity. The characters, like the film, are imperfect but well worthy of cherishing. Disobedience loves those imperfections, just as it reveres those who find it in themselves to cherish, worship, be honest, be brave, and be kind. It’s a film of incredible compassion, centered on performers of fathomless depth. Let out that breath you’ve been holding for years, and let it sweep you away.