Let’s just get the superlatives out of the way, shall we? Stunning. Beautiful. Bold. Heartrending. Inspired. Superb. Fantastic. Exquisite. Remarkable. Brilliant. Magical.
Disobedience is all of these things, effortlessly so. Director Sebastian Lelio, whose A Fantastic Woman took home the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film earlier this year, has hit upon another masterpiece. It is the surprise of the season, one that makes an early case for Oscar contention next year, and one that you will almost certainly being hearing more about come awards season.
So, too, for his stars, Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams, both of whom give the performances of their career. Were they both not already so accomplished, their work here would be career defining. As it stands, they both merely prove again what we’ve already known about both of them for years, and the result is heartbreaking and beautiful.
Weisz stars as photographer Ronit Krushka, who returns to home for the first time in years following the death of her father, Rav for a congregation of Orthodox Jews in London. There, she is reunited with her childhood best friends, Esti (McAdams) and Dovid (Alessandro Nivola) who are now married to each other while Dovid, who trained under Ravi Krushka, prepares to take over the responsibilities of the congregation. Slowly, we learn of the reason for Ronit’s exile from her life, and her presence at home causes a whirlwind of controversy and temptation that threatens her family and their community.
Based on the novel by Naomi Alderman, Disobedience is a wonderful exploration on the effects of repression and sexuality on the individual and the community. As we learn, Ronit ran off to New York in search of freedom following an affair between her and Esti. She has, largely, cast off the chains of her family and her upbringing—even as they’re replaced by chains of guilt and remorse for nothing being there for her father. Esti, meanwhile, remains shackled to expectation, unable or unwilling to betray the values of her community for her own desires.
The script, from Lelio and Rebecca Lenkiewicz is a tense build that moves slowly but rapturously through its emotional beats. Weisz and McAdams are perfectly matched here, with each woman working at the top of their respective games. They are each grieving in their own ways. Weisz for her father and the life she abandoned; McAdams for the life she wanted but never had. All the elements combine to form a stark meditation on faith and responsibility and the differences between the two.
They are both elevated even more by the performance of Nivola, whose own faith and beliefs are tested at the reappearance of his former friend. He serves as the focal point for the rupture in the community caused by Ronit’s homecoming, and has the most the lose—personally, professionally, spiritually—as Ronit tries to make amends. And yet, conversely, he could also have the most to gain, growing in ways that will, no doubt, be painful but still beneficial if he chooses.
We aren’t given any solid answers in either direction. You can look at the film as an uplifting view on growth or a bleak, heartbreaking examination of repression. You can look at it is both—they aren’t mutually exclusive, after all. It’s powerful, however, no matter how you look at it. Whether it’s optimistic, pessimistic, optimistically pessimistic, or vice versa, Disobedience is nothing if not affecting, and under Lelio’s direction it does this beautifully.
It is a heartbreaking story of love and forgiveness that feels all at once perfect (and necessary) for today and timeless. It’s hard to imagine this film getting made even as recently as five or ten years ago, but now that it exists it feels perfectly suited for any era. It is, in a word, a stunner, and potentially one of the best films of the year.
Disobedience is now playing in limited release, with expansion on May 18.