There used to be a class of filmmakers known as “women’s directors,” a phrase that sounds like a putdown.
Chile’s Sebastián Lelio (Gloria, A Fantastic Woman) exemplifies the best talents of a women’s director: the empathy, the ability to dramatize without soaking in cheap emotion and the expert use of the close-up shot. Lelio’s star in his new film, Disobedience, is Rachel Weisz. In earlier years, Weisz was choked a bit by her beauty—she was nervous, slightly self-apologetic. As she’s matured, she’s improved. It’s as if she’s finally gotten used to being in her own skin.
Disobedience is one of Weisz’s best movies. It’s a love story set against a gray-brown North London. Weisz’s Ronnie Krushka, born Ronit, is the daughter of an esteemed Orthodox rabbi. She turned her back on her heritage and became a photographer in New York. Her first scene tells us everything about how she’s transgressed: she’s doing a portrait of a man covered with tattoos, specifically forbidden by Leviticus.
When Ronnie’s father dies, she returns for the funeral and to find out about her inheritance. We can tell what the congregation thinks of Ronnie; she’s such a black sheep, they practically baa in her face.
The woman she once loved, Esti Kuperman (Rachel McAdams), has since dutifully married. Esti’s husband, Dovid (Alessandro Nivola, sort of a more discreet version of Joaquin Phoenix), had once been Ronnie’s intended.
Lelio balances the erotic tensions and the fear between the two women. He builds to a remarkable love scene that neither strips the actresses bare nor looks too vanilla-frosted. The problem is that there’s no way to resolve this affair to the satisfaction of either romantics or realists, so the ending frays into a series of tentative scenes that make it look like Lelio wanted it both ways.
In this romance between a weak person who submitted to a loveless marriage, and a strong person who walked away, McAdams isn’t as fascinating as Weisz. But Disobedience is quality all around.
‘Disobedience’ opens Friday at Summerfield Cinemas, 551 Summerfield Road, Santa Rosa. 707.525.8909.