While Sebastian Lelio’s Best Foreign Language Oscar win for A Fantastic Woman this year marked him as a Hollywood hot prospect, his first English-language film, Disobedience, was actually already nearing completion by the time he accepted the trophy. Starring Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams, Disobedience is an adaptation of Naomi Alderman’s novel of the same name, about a tightly knit Orthodox Jewish community and the prodigal daughter who returns to poke holes in its way of life. Co-written by Lelio and Rebecca Lenkiewicz (Ida), Lelio’s interpretation of the text is a light-handed drama with hazy stakes and only flashes of the enigmatic tension he so fully realized with actress Daniela Vega in his last film.
Here the director attempts to give three characters their own separate little movies, each given too little room. Weisz plays Ronit, a New York photographer who’s called back to the U.K. and the community she left long ago when her religious-leader father dies. But before Ronit actually shows up at the doorstep of her old friends Dovid (Alessandro Nivola) and Esti (McAdams), she mourns her father in her own way in New York in a quick succession of buzzy, dreamlike moments: Ronit fucking a stranger in a public bathroom stall; Ronit ice skating alone in a daze as loud party music blasts from the rink’s speakers; Ronit ripping the collar of her shirt out with her bare hands without a thought about how her sudden violence against her own clothing may look to others. Lelio’s strengths lie in depicting souls who vibrate on a different frequency from their environment, who yearn to break free.
When the Orthodox community cautiously welcomes Ronit in to mourn her father, Lelio gives us a glimmer of her potential to blow their world apart with a wryly humorous dinner scene, where the wild child challenges both the women and the men in their patriarchal beliefs. But Lelio soon switches focus to Esti, who’s attracted only to women — an orientation that’s obviously verboten in this community. Esti has potential to be just as kinetic on the screen as Ronit. After all, she’s a woman who must cover her entire body and head, a kind of caged animal eager to bust out. Unfortunately, Esti just quietly picks at the lock. She’s quiet, reserved, never raises her voice, and even when Esti indulges some of her fantasies and begins questioning her life choices, she’s too poker-faced to indicate something deeper shifting below the surface.
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As a whole, the film is directionless, with few individual character-study scenes making it compelling enough. It’s almost as though there are miniature, worthy films within this film, and watching for those can be a thrill, because you don’t know when, for instance, Nivola is going to slog through a ten-minute lull in the narrative to deliver a blistering, emotional monologue about the ability to choose your own destiny. It’s a shame that there’s no cohesive story to hold these performances together.