Published on June 20th, 2018 | by Noah Dimitrie0
Disobediance, from Sebastián Lelio, is a garish melodrama that has compelling moments; perhaps those less jaded by romance films will get more out of it.
Disobedience is just merely OK in just about every category. Call me jaded, but it feels as though the sub-genre of intense, forbidden-LGBT-love has been worked from just about every angle in cinema by now, and if anything, Sebastián Lelio’s latest even further proves the point. His entry into this distinct category seeks to capture a unique vantage point on prejudice through the prism of Hasidic Judaism. Unfortunately, what it seeks to do—and what it convinces itself with an obvious earnestness that it is doing—is much more compelling in concept than execution.
I had high hopes for this one going in, not necessarily because of the subject matter, but because of the Chilean director’s superb previous work. A Fantastic Woman, last year’s Oscar winning foreign language entry, was ground-breaking not only with its stylistic flair, but also with its uncompromised dedication to the transgender protagonist’s flaws. That, in juxtaposition with the prejudices surrounding her, made for one compelling and unique entry into the LGBT film canon—one that did not come across as sappy or heavy-handed as it did just heavy. Lelio’s newest film, however, seems to prioritize melodramatic indulgence and explicit moralizing over the nuance of his previous work. A shame, really, because the subject matter rests on the kind of complex terrain that could make for refreshing cinema. However, Lelio indulges the kind of forlorn love tropes of pulp romance novels and combines it with some heavy socio-religious content. It’s a bit like throwing a juicy steak into the blender along with some cheap vodka.
Ronit Krushka (Rachel Weisz) is a free-spirit photographer who is suddenly called away to her hometown of London after her deeply orthodox Rabbi father passes away. Upon her less than receptive welcome back to the community she abandoned long ago, she finds lodging with her old friends—now a married couple—Rabbi-in-training Dovid (Alessandro Nivola) and Esti (Rachel McAdams). Much to her chagrin (though really not surprising to the audience), no one in the community really wants her there, and the dangling conversations and blunt atmosphere make it a dreary visit not only for Ronit, but also for the audience. However, somewhat gradually but more so awkwardly, a former sexual attraction between Esti and Ronit re-emerges, and the delicate façade of her marriage and overall religiosity is threatened.
This is just simply a finer film on paper than its materialized counterpart. Through his direction, Lelio displays a genuine passion for Esti and Ronit’s forbidden love, yet he unravels it with perhaps too much of a smug attitude, as though every sub-textual beat is so painfully obvious it does not require the basic legwork of a conventional film. In actuality, the chemistry between McAdams and Weisz and their respective characters is dramatically forced in the wrong places. Their passion is buried until it’s bluntly and fully realized in only a few minutes of screen-time, and this without Lelio fully contextualizing it within their sexual history. The necessary kinetic energy to pull off that level of ineffable attraction, à la Elio and Oliver in the much better Call Me By Your Name, instead plays like a rushed mimicry of it; the actresses play romanticized versions of lesbians, ones that feel less authentic and more one-dimensionally titillating. The film’s bare-bones script constructs a framework for a compelling relationship and shades of it are brought out by Lelio’s subdued style. Yet, these moments are too few and far between to tide us over while the film predictably plods along.
The movie’s religious critique has its moments as well, though it is buried under its somewhat cringey obsession with Ronit’s intellectual superiority and the lesbian couple’s sensuality. I would argue that Dovid is the most interesting character in this film, a man who has put his faith in a dogma and ideological system that proves itself paradoxical. The film takes a sympathetic cadence in constructing his arc, and Alessandro Nivola does fine, nuanced work. Yet, a film of this critical caliber must truly understand and embody a religion in order to expose it. Lelio comes off as judgemental and glib in moments that require thoughtfulness. He is much more concerned with exploring the theme of liberation in a vacuum, and forces this onto the film instead of naturalistically paving the way for his audience to think for themselves. Strange, because A Fantastic Woman excelled so brilliantly in this regard, maintaining a more nuanced representation of its ideological perils.
Overall, it is still a passable effort. The film’s garish melodrama still has its compelling moments, and perhaps those less jaded by romance films will get more out of it. Lelio has his heart in the right place and it sometimes shows, but—for whatever baffling reason—he seems to lack the confidence and poise in this one to really trust in his audience to read between the lines. If anything, the stale art-film exoskeleton draws too much attention to the film’s melodrama (that word keeps coming up, doesn’t it?), making it stick out like a sore thumb. Lelio is an inspired filmmaker and I have no doubt in my mind he has multiple great films in him, but this flick—released less than a year after his last film—is rushed. Actually, it somehow manages to be both rushed and ploddingly dull. A unique, but ultimately unsatisfying feat.