Disobedience (2017) ☆☆☆(3/4): A somber drama of love and faith

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Good adult drama is something we do not encounter everyday, and I am glad to report to you that “Disobedience”, the latest film of Chilean filmmaker Sebastián Lelio, is an engaging adult drama to be appreciated for its mood, storytelling, and performance. While it may require you some patience due to its rather slow narrative pacing, it will gradually draw you into the complicated emotional circumstance of its three main characters who come to face the old feelings among them again, and you will come to care about them as understanding and emphasizing with their respective positions.

After the opening scene which effectively sets the overall tone of the film, we meet Ronit Krushka (Rachel Weisz), a woman who left her Orthodox Jewish community in Britain a long time ago and now works as a professional photographer in New York City. While she is working on her latest project associated with tattooed people, there comes a phone call for her, and she is notified of the death of her rabbi father. Although she and her father have been estranged from each other for years, she cannot help but feel morose and devastated, and she eventually decides to come back to her hometown.

When Ronit arrives in her hometown, she comes across Dovid (Alessandro Nivola), a childhood friend who has been like a son to Ronit’s father and is also expected to fill the empty position left by him. While surprised by her unexpected visit, Dovid welcomes Ronit nonetheless, and he even suggests that she should stay in his house during the mourning week for her father. It turns out that he married their friend Esti (Racheal McAdams), and Esti is certainly glad to have her old friend in their house.

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As going through the mourning week along with Esti and Dovid, Ronit becomes more aware of the gap between her and her conservative hometown. With her modern attire and forthright attitude, she always draws attention from others, and there is a little amusing moment when she frankly tells others that she is not interested in marriage at all. When she later goes to see her uncle for checking whether her father left anything to her, her uncle does not welcome her much, and he flatly informs that there is nothing to inherit for her.

Meanwhile, the movie slowly reveals Ronit’s emotional matters in the past. While it turns out that Dovid has some old feeling toward Ronit, it is also revealed that Esti and Ronit once fell in love with each other, and the circumstance becomes quite awkward as Ronit and Esti come to see that they are still attracted to each other. Although she tries to stick to her faith, Esti cannot deny what has been repressed inside her for many years, and Ronit begins to consider living with her in New York City.

This is surely a familiar melodramatic situation, but the adapted screenplay by Lelio and his co-writer Rebecca Lenkiewicz, which is based on the novel of the same name by Naomi Alderman, handles its three main characters with care and respect, and all of them are presented as complex human characters to observe. While they cannot resist their mutual attraction, both Ronit and Esti care about Dovid, and Dovid, who knew about their relationship from the beginning, becomes more conflicted as he also cares a lot about them. He tries to deal with this difficult circumstance as much as he can, but then there comes an eventual moment when he cannot turn a blind eye to what is going on between Ronit and his wife.

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Although being somber and restrained, the movie is filled with vivid mood and details to observe and appreciate. Cinematographer Danny Cohen did a good job of establishing grey somber atmosphere on the screen, and the restrained score by Matthew Herbert is effective as conveying what is being churned inside the main characters in the film. The cultural details in the movie are presented with considerable authenticity, and these realistic details further accentuate how its main characters are limited by the conservative environment surrounding them.

The movie is also supported well by a trio of strong performances. Rachel Weisz, who has steadily advanced since her Oscar-winning turn in “The Constant Gardener” (2005), naturally embodies her character right from her first scene in the film, and she and Rachel McAdams, who fully immerses herself in her character’s dowdy appearance, are effortless with their understated onscreen chemistry. As the third main part of the story, Alessandro Nivola, who drew my attention for the first time via his supporting turn in “Junebug” (2005), holds his own place between his co-stars, and he is excellent especially when his character silently struggles with his growing inner turmoil later in the story.

Overall, “Obedience” is another commendable work from Lelio, who has recently been more prominent thanks to the recent critical success of “A Fantastic Woman” (2017), which won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar early in this year. Compared to that lively melodramatic film, “Obedience” is less spirited, but I was seldom bored at least thank to Lelio’s skillful direction and his main performers’ solid acting, and the movie, which is incidentally his first English language film, confirms again that he is a talented filmmaker who knows how to make a good adult drama. At this point, he is working on the American remake version of his previous film “Gloria” (2013), and I sincerely hope that will be another interesting work in his advancing career.

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