Disobedience (UK-US-Belgium 2017)

The three central characters concerned with ‘disobedience’, (from left) Ronit (Rachel Weisz), Esti (Rachel McAdams} and David (Alessandro Nivola)

Disobedience is a wonderful film. It is quite a feat to make a film nearly two hours long that focuses on the intimate relationships of three childhood friends in later life plus the significant absence of a father and short sequences with assorted relatives and fellow members of a religious community. It is even more remarkable when English isn’t your first language and your film is set in a closed community that you don’t necessarily know much about. I’d read something about the film and the book it was based on, but as often happens these days, I immediately forgot who the director was. Part way through the film I thought this must be a female director who is handling these scenes so sensitively and I remembered that the film is an adaptation of a novel by Naomi Alderman. The end credits reminded me it was actually the Chilean auteur Sebastián Lelio in the middle of a run of three films made over two years. A Fantastic Woman arrived in the UK earlier this year and his English language remake of his own Gloria (2013) is released in the US next year.

David meets Ronit at the door

Time for a fag-break or an opportunity to talk in private?

Lelio approaches his task with two familiar strategies. One is a ‘don’t explain’ approach in which audiences are required to wait and attempt to puzzle out who is related to whom when Rachel Weisz as Ronit Krushka lands back in North London from New York. We work out quickly that she is the daughter of the Rabbi Rav Krushka (Anton Lesser) who died during the opening sequence in his synagogue. But whose house are we now in and what do all these people mean to Ronit? Ronit has decided to live ‘outside’ this very specific Jewish community as a single woman working as an art photographer. Her single status and her professional life is a concern for her relatives. I don’t want to spoil the narrative so I’ll just say that Ronit is welcomed by Dovid Kuperman (Alessandro Nivola), who she has known since childhood and who was her father’s protegé. Eventually she will also meet Esti (Rachel McAdams) who was the third member of a childhood trio. At this point I feel I need to say that Esti looks younger than the other two. In one sense this isn’t a problem but the script insists that they were together as children and Weisz and Nivola are 8 and 6 years older than McAdams. Perhaps this is a commentary on the ‘maturity’ of characters rather than actual age? I only mention this because the age difference is palpable. It also makes it more difficult to work out how the characters are related.

Ronit finds three young scholars by her father’s modest grave

The second strategy is to use a shooting style that switches between long shots and close-ups. The film was shot mainly in streets of semi-detached houses in Hendon. The close-up style at times uses a very shallow field of focus so that characters move into and out of focus very quickly. There is a tension between the ‘openness’ of the long shots of streets and the confining atmosphere of the ‘closed’ community. The author of the original novel, Naomi Alderman writes in the Guardian about how she felt watching the adaptation of her novel about the frumkeit of Hendon, the very specific Orthodox Jewish community in North London. I hadn’t realised that there are important differences between this community and those of Golders Green and other parts of North London, especially Stamford Hill, the centre of Ultra Orthodox congregations. Ms Alderman suggests her novel, written during the aftermath of 9/11 in New York, was the first to focus on this kind of Jewish community since George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda in 1876. She suggests that there have been others since. She wrote the novel while still ‘frum‘ or ‘observant’ of the teachings of her synagogue and writing it was part of the process of acknowledging her LGBT+ status. All of this is part of the film and when Esti and Ronit ‘escape’ the confines of the community, they find a hotel in Central London where they can rekindle the passion they had for each other as teenagers.

Ronit and Esti ‘escape’ to the West End. The alley-way here seems almost like an escape passage

The film’s narrative is kept almost completely within the community apart from the episode referenced above. This means that it isn’t a narrative about conflict between the community and the wider world but rather, as the title suggests, within the community itself, posing the question of the freedom to act and what pursuing or prohibiting that freedom means in terms of obedience/disobedience. There is a danger, perhaps, of treating the restraints of such a life style as ‘exotic’, but I think that is avoided in Lelio’s presentation of the story. My one disappointment with the film is that there are no subtitles for the Hebrew spoken in the synagogue. I’m assuming that there is also Yiddish spoken in the film (‘frum‘ as I understand derives from Yiddish?). I’d have liked to know more about what was being said but perhaps this ‘withholding’ of knowledge is part of Lelio’s approach as outlined above. I knew there was something odd about Esti’s hair, but I hadn’t realised that a sheitel or wig was required for a married woman in the community.

David in the synagogue where he is expected to succeed Rav. What does ‘disobedience’ mean to him?

The success of the film depends to a large extent on the performances of the three leads and the supporting cast, including Alan Corduner as Uncle Moshe. In some ways, the key role is Dovid and Alessandro Nivola manages to represent a character whose actions appear ambivalent. He is in the opening scene as his mentor makes his final speech about freedom and he is the one who makes crucial decisions about freedom at the end of the film. In between we can’t be absolutely sure what he is thinking or indeed feeling – but it is a struggle. It is the two women who seem able to be able to act, to some extent, on their emotional impulses. The film should be a melodrama but Lelio’s approach drains much of the potential for ‘excess’ in the colour and mise en scène – several scenes deal with the rituals of mourning and remembering the absent father figure. But there is music and the small group singing, especially of male voices, is very affecting.

Rachel Weisz was a producer on the film having optioned the novel. I’m not sure how much she was then involved as a producer. The crew list includes many ‘executive’ and ‘line’ producers and I suspect the major burden was borne by Frida Torresblanco of Braven Films. She is a significant figure in Hispanic films, now based in New York. I’m not generally pleased with the trend for filmmakers from smaller producing countries to move in anglophone productions but I have to admit that Sebastián Lelio is very successful with this venture and I look forward to Gloria Bell – I just hope we get it sooner rather than later.

PS. Last night I watched a fascinating documentary on BBC1 about the history of the Jewish community in Leeds. This seemed to have a ‘Reformed’ rather than Orthodox practice but it was equally revealing about migration and a community within a community. A Very British History: The Jews of Leeds is on iPlayer for 29 days.

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