Disobedience (Ireland-UK-US, 2017)

Love in a cold climate

Two films a year from director Sebastián Lelio, we are spoiled; and he’s completed his English-language remake of Gloria due early next year. A Fantastic Woman was fantastic and I think Disobedience is even better.

I have little time for religion (though I’ve no problem with people being religious as long as it doesn’t impinge upon others) so a film set in an Orthodox Jewish community was not likely to appeal to me. In last month’s Sight & Sound interview Lelio explains how the community decided to cooperate with the film, already having experienced the controversy caused by Naomi Alderman’s novel, to ensure that the representation was as accurate as possible. Such tolerance serves both the film and the community well as the ‘forbidden’ lesbian love that drives the film is a problem for the Jewish tradition. Despite the homophobia, ultimately the film shows the strength of humanity over bigotry.

The film’s set in Hendon, a suburb 11km north west of central London, and its sterile, uniform streets are superbly captured in Danny Cohen’s cinematography: it is a bleak mid winter. Rachel Weisz’s disobedient rebel, Ronit, returns for the funeral of her father and the script brilliant offers a slow reveal of her relationship with Rachel McAdam’s Esti.

Although the image is bleached of colour, this is a full blown melodrama that uses the singing at Jewish ceremonies to great effect; there is also a marvellous use of The Cure’s ‘Lovesong’. Matthew Herbert’s score is extraordinary in ways I’m not quite sure about. It’s symphonic, and lush strings are used to emphasise high emotion, but there’s more going on: woodwind figures give an otherworldly atmosphere. It’s a melodrama where the buttoned-up orthodoxy ensures when emotions escape they are full-blown.

When the lovers journey to the centre of London for some privacy they suddenly realise they can hold hands in public. I’m sure there remain many places in the UK where same-sex hand holding is seen as an invite for derision. Thus the scene reminds us of the battle against homophobia that is still in the process of being won.

It was clearly a project close to Weisz’s heart, she optioned the novel, and presumably was involved in the selection of Chilean Lelio as director. It’s not so much a foreigner’s eye view of London, as an outsider’s view of this Jewish community and maybe this distance allowed him to so effectively portray a community that is strange to many of us. I haven’t read Alderman’s novel, there are autobiographical elements to the story, but it is highly likely that the celebration of humanity was in the original material so brilliantly brought to screen.

 

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