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The Independent Critic

Rachel Weisz, Rachel McAdams, Alessandro Nivola, Allan Corduner, Bernice Stegers, Nicholas Woodeson
Sebastián Lelio
Sebastián Lelio, Rebecca Lenkiewicz, Naomi Alderman (Novel)
Rated R
114 Mins.
Bleecker Street

 "Disobedience" Smooths Out the Edges of its Complicated World 
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If you have followed my film journalism for any length of time, then you've become aware of little bits and pieces of my background that land somewhere between the land of transparent, vulnerable journalism and just plain "tmi." 

More often than not, it's probably tmi. 

Some of you know that I was raised as a Jehovah's Witness, an ultra-conservative and cultishly flavored religious denomination that few actually understand and even fewer actually want to. 

What many don't know about my childhood faith journey is that my reason for "shunning," a discipline openly practiced by the Jehovah's Witnesses, was that I was gay. 

Now then, here's the kicker. I'm not. I'm not gay.

While my experience was vastly different than that portrayed in Chilean writer-director Sebastián Lelio's Disobedience, an adaptation of a book by Naomi Alderman, the two experiences exist within the same spiritual tapestry. As such, there were times during Disobedience that I found myself as immensely moved by the quieter, seemingly detached moments as I was by those expected moments of intense revelation and passion and conflict. 

The film is the English language feature debut for Lelio, whose A Fantastic Woman received the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film and whose reputation for slowly building character development pays off in a film where there are extended periods where very little seems to be happening yet, in those silences, much has unfolded.

Rachel Weisz is Ronit "Ronnie" Krushka, a now successful photographer based out of New York who, somewhat unexpectedly, returns to the London suburb where she was raised following the death of her father, a beloved rabbi for a community of obviously tight-knight Orthodox Jews. 

It is not perfectly clear early on what has led to Ronit's departure from the community, a departure that would be difficult to imagine for the daughter of a rabbi. For those familiar with Alderman's source material, of course, there is no particular secret and the film's advertising and trailer have painted broad strokes implying some sort of forbidden relationship that once occurred between Ronit and her former best friend, Esti (Rachel McAdams). Upon her return, which seems to catch the community by surprise, Ronit is greeted with a tension-filled welcome that lacks any semblance of that hospitality one expects to find within true welcoming. 

Ronit, on the other hand, is equally surprised to discover that Esti is now wed to Dovid (Alessandro Nivola), who is set to become the rabbi and who, with visible hesitation, invites Ronit to stay with them for the week. 

It would be difficult to say much more about Disobedience without giving away much of what makes such a compelling, involving story and film. While it is being sold as a "love story" of sorts, for the most part this is unimaginative marketing defaulting to the strong likelihood, and true likelihood, that moviegoers are more likely to fill the seats for a lesbian love story than a religious-themed film. It's a fair conclusion, but it's also likely to lead to some disappointment with the final product. 

When it is most effective, Disobedience is consistent with the themes that Lelio has often explored in his films - courage and, well, faithfulness to one's own journey. 

The lensing by Danny Cohen is almost stunning in its naturalism. Cohen's lens intimately captures the largely unspoken tensions existing between the clearly modernized Ronit and those within the community, especially the elders, whom she encounters. This isn't played for drama. Ronit doesn't flaunt her changed lifestyle ... she simply lives into it authentically and unapologetically. In fact, equally stunning is the way in which Cohen captures the two women, Ronit and Esti, their skin devoid of the usual masks and cover-ups and impressively and beautifully honest. 

Cohen's lens is also unforgiving in the ways in which it captures the film's raw yet far from graphic expressions of intimacy that occur dutifully between Esti and Dovid and, shall we say much less dutifully, between Ronit and Esti. Weisz, in particular, is completely remarkable in the latter scene, a remarkable and combustible and yet one immersed in longing and emotion that is practically impossible to define. 

While Weisz has such a reputation as a fine actress that one would be hard-pressed to say this is her finest performance to date, it is fair to say that Weisz so completely surrenders herself here that her performance is mesmerizing. The true revelations here may be both McAdams and Nivola, the latter being a long underappreciated actor whose work here shouldn't get lost as he, perhaps more than anyone, communicates tremendous complexity within the film's silences. McAdams wondrously portrays the lens through which we see the truth of Weisz and it's a quiet, disciplined performance that stands alongside her best work. 

Disobedience isn't a perfect film. Lelio, despite having a remarkable ability to patiently build compelling characters, has always had a bit of trouble drawing a story to a close and that remains true here despite the obvious framework of the film's literary origins. The ending of Disobedience feels inappropriately unsatisfying, as if Lelio were striving for an impact not quite achieved and certainly not living up to the rest of the film. 

There are times, as well, when Disobedience feels incomplete despite its nearly two-hour running time. There are moments within the story that feel disjointed, not the natural disconnection between orthodoxy and contemporary but the inauthentic disconnection arising out of occasionally awkward, lopsided editing. 

Despite the feeling that Disobedience lacks the emotional impact that Lelio seems to be striving for, Disobedience remains an intelligent and involving film largely on the strength of its ensemble cast, and especially the leading trio, who manage to bring the story to life even when the story itself doesn't quite achieve the greatness of their performances. 

© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic