Disobedience: Sex, Religion, and Robert Smith, by Ian Brill
In his follow-up to the Oscar-winning film A Fantastic Woman, director Sebastián Lelio delivers another powerful performance-based film in his English-language debut. His camera’s adoration for his players allows for incredibly impactful moments, even when some of the storytelling can feel perfunctory. Rachel McAdams, who has already delivered a winning comedic performance in this year’s Game Night, gives us what may be her best performance yet.
Rachel Weisz plays Ronit Krushka, whose father, a Rabbi serving London’s Orthodox community, passes away. Ronit has left her community and is living a secular life in New York. She returns to mourn her father, living with Dovid (Alessandro Nivola), who was her father’s protege and “spiritual son,” as well as Esti (McAdams), Dovid’s wife. The reason for Ronit’s exile is that, in their teenage years, Esti and Ronit were lovers.
McAdams’ performance is such a thunderbolt, even though it may not seem that way at first. When first introduced she is incredibly reserved. Already she gives the feeling that she has lived in a repressive culture, one that is especially repressive for women. Ronit’s return is an incredible complication, and McAdams’ inner conflict is the soul of the film. It’s a conflict that she and Lelio unfold with wonderful precision. Simply in McAdams’ face and behavior, we see the woman she once was. Alone with Ronit in the latter’s father’s house, McAdams’ Esti hums along to The Cure’s “Lovesong” when it comes on the radio. As a member of such a private and secluded community, it’s striking, in a particularly playful way, to see her react to something from the outside world. When Esti is honest with Ronit about her conundrum – that she is a lesbian but also has genuine faith in her beliefs – McAdams is not erasing that reserved character we first met but instead builds upon her.
The centerpiece of the film is deeply intimate sex scene between Esti and Ronnie, one that is in stark contrast to an earlier passionless sex scene between Esti and Dovid. After this, plus a frank conversation with Dovid, McAdams explores the sadness of her conflict, but in a way that never loses the inner strength the character has. A performance that is simultaneously strong and delicate, it is sure to draw incredible empathy from the audience.
Weisz is strong in the lead role, but she does not get to play as much. Ronit’s sorrow quickly morphs into resentment towards the community that, in the case of her father’s obituary, literally rewrote her out of history. A major scene is a dinner with extended family, where Ronit lays out her disagreements with the community’s gender roles with an acid tongue delivery. It is entertaining but does not feature the deep conflict or pain that defines McAdams’ moments. Weisz is a steady wavelength that McAdams and Nivola do wonderful work around.
While Nivola’s Dovid could have easily been a villain in the film, he instead delivers a focused performance of a man who has never questioned his place and privilege in this community. In one scene, he tells other men “I keep [my house] in order.” Some actors would have put a little menace into that line, but he states it matter-of-factly. He is not a man who is ready to challenge any threat to his community, rather he does not give any consideration to such challenges in the first place.
His bravura moment arrives in the film’s climax. Lelio’s camera follows him as Dovid wanders a synagogue, contemplating a dramatic choice. When the choice is made during a monologue, Nivola’s face goes in and out of focus as he delivers a powerful proclamation. In that moment, it is clear that Lelio’s style is to strip away any sense of presentation and simply provide as raw a performance as possible.
Lelio is so beholden to a lack of conscious style that the story can feel like it’s moving along in a staid manner. The moment when Esti’s employers learn that she has rekindled her relationship with Ronit is done with no sense of gravity or drama. Perhaps this is to stay realistic. After all, we do not get stirring music or dramatic camera angles during the major moments of our lives. But the result is that those moments feel robbed of potential. Thankfully, the film’s overall potential is reached, brilliantly so, in McAdams and Nivola’s performances.