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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Youth [La giovinezza] (2015)

YOUTH (2)

Today’s Cinema Adventure originally appeared in

The Pride L.A.

At this time of year, movie houses are suddenly filled with films clearly intended as “award bait,” each one marketed as the next big winner in an effort to attract your attention and your box office dollars.  Discriminating movie-goers, of course, know that most of these are often just the usual mainstream studio fare masquerading as art films- but usually, in their midst, one can find the genuine article.  This year, one such contender is “Youth,” an English language film by Italian writer/director Paolo Sorrentino.

With an impressive cast of veteran heavy-hitters, “Youth” belies its title by centering on two elderly characters- Fred and Mick (played, respectively, by Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel), who are vacationing at a luxurious resort in the Swiss Alps.  Fred, a renowned conductor and composer, is faced with a hard-to-decline invitation to come out of retirement for a very special command performance, which brings up long-suppressed feelings over his absent wife; Mick, a respected film director, clings to his self-acknowledged illusions while crafting the script for his next movie, which he envisions as a definitive “testament” about the nature of life and art.  Personal struggles notwithstanding, these two old friends spend their time together talking only of “good things,” and mingling with the other guests, who include (among others) a hot-shot movie star, a now-obese former soccer legend, and the newly-crowned Miss Universe.  Clearly, this hotel boasts an exclusive clientele.

If the above description doesn’t read like much of a synopsis, that’s because “Youth” is not really a plot-driven film.  Sure, things happen- Fred’s daughter (Rachel Weisz) has some romantic complications, and a number of background characters have their own dramatic arcs throughout- but these serve more to illuminate the ongoing meditation that is the true focus here.  Instead of rising and falling action, we are given ebbing and swelling emotion, conveyed less by what we see and hear than by what we feel- or, perhaps more accurately, what we sense.  In this way, Sorrentino allows us to experience his characters at an empathic level, and turns what seems to be a story about the existential struggles of privileged people into a contemplation of the human need to connect.

This is no simple accomplishment, but Sorrentino makes it seem effortless.  His movie is a study of the contrast between surfaces and what is beneath them; from beginning to end we are treated to atmospheric, richly-detailed visuals, photographed (by Luca Bigazzi) with an eye towards capturing both the idyllic settings and the subtle activity within them.  Breezes billow through canopies, steam rises from still water, sunlight pierces shadows; and populating the scene are the placid figures of the hotel’s guests, evoking speculation about the interplay of forces taking place behind their own inscrutable exteriors.  The cumulative effect of this visual counterpoint is a growing awareness of the inner lives of the characters which gets its ultimate payoff in a moving finale involving a performance of one of Fred’s songs- actually a piece written by the film’s composer, David Lang, which would get my vote for the Best Song Oscar, if I had one.

Of course, it’s not all accomplished with subtle cinematic style; a great deal also depends upon the characters themselves- and, therefore, upon the players who portray them.  The perfect front man for all this under-the-surface exploration is Caine, who gives us yet another sublime performance; his Fred is a masterpiece of understatement, conveying monumental passions with the slightest quaver of his voice or nuance of his expression.  Keitel, as Mick, provides a fitting contrast with his earthy, passionate persona, and there are equally effective contributions by Weisz and Paul Dano (as the movie star).  However, it’s Jane Fonda, in a brief-but-show-stealing turn as Mick’s muse and favorite actress, who makes the most spectacular impression; she explodes into the proceedings like a thunderstorm, and the effect of her performance lingers for the remainder of the film.

“Youth” is one of those movies that are hard to recommend with certainty.  Despite its familiar, English-speaking cast, it’s as European as can be; Sorrentino invokes his idol, Fellini, with situational references (there are clear parallels to “8 1/2”), stylistic homage, circus imagery, unabashed symbolism, and infusions of surrealism.  In addition, with its languid pace and heavy reliance on subtext, it often runs the risk of alienating viewers who prefer more actively engaging fare.  For myself, I found it intellectually challenging, emotionally complex, and deeply resonant; if that description appeals to you, I encourage you to see it for yourself.  At the least, you will be treated to a display of artistry by all of its participants; odds are good, though, that you will also walk out of the theater with a deeper connection to your own humanity- and in today’s world, that can only be good thing.