Rabbi Rav Krushka (Anton Lesser) begins director Sebastián Lelio’s latest work, 2017 TIFF standout Disobedience, with his untimely final Derasha preaching the particular beauty of God’s three separate creations: angels, beasts and humans. The angels, he says, operate only out of their connectedness to the divine, never able to deviate from God’s will. Beasts, on the other hand, exist purely upon instinct handed down by their parental creators, meanwhile man and woman are caught somewhere in between, though given the permission and mental capacity to create their own paths. Before Krushka can finish, he collapses.
The community he leaves behind is one dominated by traditions and the expectation of fulfilling and successfully passing them on. The succeeding thematic confrontation between this secluded world’s philosophies and those existentially confined by its boundaries, wishing for the freedom of mind, body and expression Krushka preaches in his final minutes, drives Lelio’s latest picture through contemplations about identity; the person we externalize through fears of failed obligation versus the true self kept painfully under wraps by said fears. With evocative, intimate direction and gripping performances behind it, Disobedience offers bittersweet hope that the internal self can become external.
Naturally, such a possibility isn’t so without great struggle, and with a co-written between him and noted playwright/Ida screenwriter Rebecca Lenkiewicz guiding him, Lelio embeds himself in, surely for him, an unfamiliar world exposed of the limiting disparities, disguised as the necessity of upheld tradition, contradicting Rav Krushka’s Derasha. From gender-segregated seating in the synagogue to different class setting and teaching styles additionally based upon gender, Disobedience provides a damning look at how patriarchal power dynamics and expectations are reinforced through knowledge. It immerses itself in a story about prevailing, though faulty customs in such a way that it initially feels as though nothing aside from the established norm is possible.
Visually, though the muted color palette may communicate an appropriate bleakness in this regard, it complements the self-imposed modesty of religious faith that may shape some, but imprisons others. Just when we might feel put off by the film’s dour appearance, however, cinematographer Danny Cohen undercuts this drabness with intermittent periods of warmth, or otherwise segments of delicately curated framing that enhances feelings of isolation and inner turmoil. Select shots radiate with piercing emotion, partially because Lelio’s mostly reserved direction knows when to remain respectfully distant and use earnest intimacy as tonal punctuation, steering attentions away from melodrama and toward character psychology.
Rachel Weisz’s performance as the mourning, yet conflicted daughter of Rav Kruska, Ronit, does proper justice to a familiar arc depicting the difficulties of returning to a family you’ve reluctantly left behind – or, in this case, were exiled from – but the stronghold of Disobedience’s screenplay lies in Rachel McAdams’s Esti. Her richness arguably towers over the material she wasn’t involved in until the inciting incident, battling between the forbidden comforts of her love for Ronit with the simultaneous securities and restrictions of her domestic life influenced by her deep faith. Where Weisz acts the living hell out of an occasionally broad part requiring an oft-difficult balance between composure and compassion, McAdams finds provocative subtlety in Esti’s pain that lingers longer than it remains visible onscreen.
Alessandro Nivola, as Rav Krushka’s closest disciple and Esti’s husband Dovid, makes an additionally solid effort of portraying a man who lives and breathes on the boundaries his faith prescribes, and even if his redemption toward the end doesn’t feel completely earned, it is curiously based in his instinct to interpret text as it is strictly written or spoken for a nuanced look at hardline faith’s capacity to express understanding. The moment in and of itself may perhaps appear storybook, but such judgment belies its poignancy in context with how the film began – not to mention Lelio’s employment of claustrophobia make the preceding seconds rife with tension.
It’s a satisfying culmination to a slowly building narrative that seduces as much as it intrigues with regards to how we think of religion in a modern context, and thus how we view films, particularly LGBT+ examples, featuring the oppressive presence of dogma or other figures stifling protagonists from expressing their truest selves. Whereas most see characters leaving behind destructive individuals or institutions that cannot evolve past their biases, Disobedience offers a faint glimmer of hope that once-thought firmly affixed philosophical boundaries can be moved, not just should. It’s a moving sentiment – sorry – that doesn’t forget where else the lines have been, and where they can still grow.