Disobedience (2018)

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Today’s Cinema Adventure was originally published in
The Los Angeles Blade

The recent Oscar win of “A Fantastic Woman” as last year’s Best Foreign Language Picture may have been at least partly in response to the impressive performance of its trans star, Daniela Vega; but since any film is ultimately only as excellent as the vision behind it, the bulk of the credit must be laid at the feet of Chilean director Sebastián Lelio.

Fresh on the heels of that groundbreaking triumph, Lelio returns with a new film – this one in English – that once again addresses the suppression of non-conforming identities.

“Disobedience” follows Ronit (Rachel Weisz), a successful photographer who comes home to the Orthodox Jewish community in which she was raised for the funeral of her estranged father.  Though her return is met with some initial tension, she is invited to stay with her cousin Dovid (Alessandro Nivola) – a rabbi now married to her childhood friend Esti (Rachel McAdams), with whom she had once shared a “forbidden” relationship.  When the attraction between the two women reignites, Esti finds herself questioning her commitment to the role of obedient wife – as well as to the faith that has forced it upon her.

Adapted from a novel by Naomi Alderman, the screenplay by Lelio and Rebecca Lenkiewicz takes pains to keep the roots of the story firmly planted in the insular world it depicts.  Lelio reinforces these efforts with his sure-handed direction, capturing the characters’ environment with an almost sensory completeness while keeping their inner experiences at the forefront of our attention.

From its opening scene, in which Ronit’s rabbi father collapses while addressing his congregation on the subject of “choice,” the movie wraps itself (and the audience) in the deeply solemn, contemplative atmosphere of the church.  Its characters’ conversations never veer far from the traditions and tenets of their faith; even when discussing the mundane matters of day-to-day life, it’s clear their thoughts are still tethered tightly to the beliefs that inform every aspect of their existence.

Despite the specificity of its setting, and although the nature of its central relationship is particularly resonant for LGBT audiences, the conflict that drives “Disobedience” is universal.  Its leading characters serve as stand-ins for anyone whose inner life is at odds with the expectations of their cultural backgrounds, and their ways of dealing with that disparity reflect choices made by real-life individuals trapped in such a dilemma.  Ronit has severed ties with her past and built a secular life for herself, while Esti has sacrificed her personal happiness to maintain the connection to her faith – yet each is haunted by guilt and by longing, unable to completely let go of what they have lost or to fully embrace the life they have chosen.

In bringing these women to life, Weisz and McAdams are each superb (though it’s McAdams who gets the greater opportunity to shine, thanks to her character’s more visible journey); they share a rare and palpable chemistry that makes their onscreen love for each other burn brightly and believably.  Though these two rightfully dominate the film, however, it’s male co-star Nivola who may have the more difficult task.

As the third point of the film’s precarious romantic triangle, Dovid brings an even wider scope to the story; a pillar of the community’s religious life, he must confront the inadequacy of his own knowledge in a situation that is irreconcilable with the customs of which he is a guardian.  A lesser film might have presented him as a mere antagonist, an avatar for patriarchal hetero-normative society.  Here, though he may indeed serve those functions, Nivola brings enough depth and gentleness to the character that he is not only prevented from being unsympathetic, but even made genuinely likable.

Ironically, it’s this fair-minded treatment that somewhat weakens an otherwise powerful film.

“Disobedience” walks a delicate line in terms of representation.  It places its spotlight on LGBT characters – and because they are female, it also addresses feminist factors such as equality and empowerment.  At the same time, it explores these issues within a subculture that has itself long been the victim of marginalization, taking care to avoid disparaging the traditions or demonizing the representatives of the Orthodox Jewish community.  It’s an admirable stance, but it results in an awkward structural imbalance that the film does not altogether resolve.

The first two-thirds of the movie, which centers on the build of tension as the passion between the two women slowly reawakens, is riveting cinema.  Full of potent verbal and visual subtext, it proceeds at a pace just restrained enough to stoke anticipation without seeming slow or labored, culminating in a physical reconnection that feels as well-earned as it does inevitable.

After this explosive coming-together, however, “Disobedience” seems to drag as it dwells on the fallout and repercussions of the newly-rekindled affair.  The focus shifts to Dovid, giving him equal time in his double role as betrayed husband and community leader; though this adds a crucial facet to the film’s perspective, it feels like an extra chapter in a story that has already been told – providing necessary information, but diluting the effect of what has come before it.

More unfortunate, perhaps, is that this later portion of the movie carries with it a sense that “permission” is somehow necessary for the women to fully express their identities and fulfill their needs.  Within the context of the plot, of course, and in terms of the characters’ emotional arcs – particularly Esti’s – this is an important step towards resolution; the piece is titled “Disobedience,” after all.  It also conveys empathy and respect for those trying to reconcile their religious beliefs with evolving attitudes and changing times.  For those viewing the story from the perspective of LGBT or feminist concerns, though, it could be easily interpreted as a validation of sorts for an attitude which continues to be used as justification for the oppression of non-conforming individuals in a society still dominated by straight male privilege.

Despite this potentially divisive challenge to some audiences’ “woke” sensibilities, Lelio’s film is still a powerful statement.  Not only does it offer an all-too-rare narrative about same-sex love between women (particularly welcome in the wake of so many successful male-centric queer stories like “Moonlight,” “Call Me By Your Name,” and “Love, Simon”), it presents a message of reconciliation between the values of deeply entrenched tradition and the attitudes of evolving, progressive culture.

Though some might feel it pulls its punches, “Disobedience” nevertheless makes a strong enough impact to call it a worthy and important new entry to the ever-expanding catalog of cinema dedicated to expressing the voice of “otherness” in our popular culture.

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Ragtime (1981)

s-l1600Today’s cinema adventure is “Ragtime,” a 1981 film based on the acclaimed novel by E.L. Doctorow. Featuring a mix of real-life historical figures and fictional characters, it’s a kaleidoscopic look at American culture through a nostalgic, turn-of-the-century filter; but it’s really about how we, as a people, react in the face of social inequality – perpetuated by a cultural hierarchy based on income, fame, class, and (most of all) race – and about how, despite the changes on the surface – things are really much the same roughly a century later.

When it was originally released, this movie was highly anticipated; after all, it was the screen adaptation of a monumentally successful book, featuring the return to the screen of no less than film legend James Cagney after 20 years of retirement.  It was directed by Milos Forman, still one of the industry’s heavy-hitters after his multi-Oscar-winning triumph of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” and enacting its sprawling story of an affluent, white American family – swept into the tide of cultural change by their involvement with a black man whose struggle for justice escalates into violent insurrection – was an ensemble cast of then-up-and-coming talents (including Mary Steenburgen, Elizabeth McGovern, Brad Dourif, Mandy Patinkin, and even author Norman Mailer).  Alongside these were revered veterans (Cagney, Pat O’Brien, Moses Gunn, Donald O’Connor) and a number of yet-to-be stars (Debbie Allen, Jeff Daniels, Fran Drescher, Samuel L. Jackson) in small but unforgettable roles. It was nominated for 8 Oscars (though it ultimately won none of them) and received mostly positive reviews – but it was a disappointment at the all-important box office.  People were, perhaps, not ready for the harsh look in the mirror that faced them in the story of Coalhouse Walker’s doomed and desperate quest for justice.

I dare say that in 2018, they are even less ready for it.

As for myself, as a blossoming cinephile, I loved this movie when I saw it in my youth – though as a whole, looking at it objectively, I can see that its fragmented approach to a sprawling and complex story (a quality shared by the original book, by the way) might leave many viewers feeling detached and unsatisfied.  For me, even when I was young, I appreciated the opportunity to pick up on the things between the lines on my own; so many years later, watching it again, that subtext emerged for me as even richer and more profound than I could ever have imagined as a teen.

Now, this once-prominent movie seems almost forgotten.  More people probably remember the Broadway Musical that came later (which was excellent, but also financially unsuccessful – though that was perhaps more due to its elaborate and expensive-to-maintain production values).  This is surprising in some ways, especially considering that it was directed by the great Milos Forman, whose immigrant eye captured the spirit of America with the clarity of an outsider and permitted a more honest portrait of its cultural life than any native might have done.

But on another level, it’s not so surprising. America loves itself, and “Ragtime” uses the lure of quaint nostalgia to offer a devastating glimpse at the not-so-lovable things that exist in the core of its identity. It gives us hope, perhaps, by showing the infinitesimally slow evolution that takes place amidst the turmoil, but it does not give us easy moral answers, and it does not give us a happy ending. In the end, it’s a snapshot of who we are (not who we were, despite the Gilded Age setting), nothing more nor less, and it’s up to us to make of it what we will.  For Americans of any era – but perhaps especially of this one – that’s not a pleasant prospect, so it’s no wonder this great film molders on the shelves of obscurity.

The good news is that, upon revisiting this classic, I found my youthful memories of its richness all held true; I could still revel in its sets and costumes, its exquisite cinematography, the perfect musical score – complete with authentic-sounding songs – by Randy Newman, and its wonderful acting.  As for the latter, Steenburgen and Patinkin stood out for me, then and now; James Olson’s quiet turn as a the head of the story’s anonymous family, who struggles to do the right thing even as he clings to the comfortable privilege of his role in a deeply patriarchal society, is unexpectedly sympathetic; and the remarkable Howard Rollins Jr. is breathtaking in the role of Coalhouse – which should have made him a much bigger star than he was to become before his tragic death from AIDS a little over a decade later.  Perhaps the most surprising performance comes from the great Cagney; delivering far more than just a stunt cameo, he is marvelously subtle and layered in his all-too-brief role as New York police commissioner Rhinelander Waldo).

As I allowed myself to revel once more, after nearly 4 decades, in its luminous, analog glory, my reflections were flavored by both the maturity I’ve gained in the intervening years and the context of current affairs in which I live now.  There was an increased respect for the understatement in the performances, which allowed volumes of subtext to resonate all the louder for being unspoken, and a more sophisticated understanding of the social strictures that dictate every event which transpires in the story as surely as if it were preordained by the heavens.  There was also a sense of history repeating:  the tabloid scandal of Stanford White’s dalliance with Evelyn Nesbit; the escapist distractions of Harry Houdini; most of all, the struggle of women, immigrants,  and people of color to rise above the profoundly unequal station allowed them in a culture still built upon sexism, racism, classism, and (perhaps above all) white male dominion – all these things, woven into the narrative of “Ragtime,” evoked for me deep echoes within our modern culture.  The faces, the names, and the headlines may have changed, but the failure of American society to live up to the promise of its idealistic values remains at the core of daily life in our nation.

It’s a disheartening observation, the key to the very purpose of both Doctorow’s book and Forman’s film, and it is almost certainly more so in an era when the resurgence of white nationalism and rampant capitalism have exerted a vice grip upon the cultural consciousness.

Yet woven into this cynical portrait is a thread of hope.  Ever so slightly, in tiny increments, humanity moves forward; a man of color stands firm in his demand for respect, a young man searching for place and meaning feels the call to activism, a woman finds her voice and asserts her will – for better or for worse, all these things work their way through the engines of fate that drive “Ragtime,” and it’s no coincidence that the film’s final, emotional denouement involves a car full of diverse, ethnically mixed people driving away into a new and happier life.  They have freed themselves from the chains that have bound them, and in so doing they become avatars for all those who would see our nation move away from the systems of the past that have so long kept it from realizing its own dream of itself.

That image in itself is reason enough to revisit “Ragtime” in this difficult day and age, and to have hope that this still-important American film will never be completely forgotten.