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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A Fantastic Woman [Una mujer fantástica] (2017)

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Today’s Cinema Adventure was originally published in

The Los Angeles Blade

For the first few minutes of Chilean director Sebastián Lelio’s “A Fantastic Woman (Una mujer fantástica),” life seems to be pretty sweet for its transgender heroine, Marina.

An aspiring singer who earns her living working as a waitress, she is involved with Orlando, a successful older businessman.  They adore each other and are deeply committed to building a future together.

This blissful existence is turned upside down in an instant when Orlando dies from a sudden aneurysm.  Instead of being treated with compassion, Marina is mistrusted by hospital staff, suspected of wrongdoing by legal authorities investigating the death, and viewed as an embarrassment and an interloper by Orlando’s family – who consider her an “aberration” and immediately begin pressuring her to move out of the apartment she shared with him.

It’s a stark reality with which Lelio’s film confronts us.  The notion of unexpectedly losing a partner is dreadful enough, in itself; but to be faced with hostility and prejudice in the wake of such tragedy, to be denied the right to grieve the loss – even actively prevented from doing so – is a nightmare most of us are loath to imagine.

Yet such is the insult-to-injury treatment which often awaits survivors within “alternative” partnerships – especially when those survivors are trans – in even the most civilized cultures.  Marina, in her struggle to find closure amidst the transphobic whirlwind that surrounds her following her lover’s death, serves as a stand-in for countless unsung individuals who daily suffer similar indignities.

She’s worthy of bearing that responsibility.

As a character, Marina is both relatable and admirable.  Throughout her ordeal, she maintains her dignity and poise; even when faced with the extreme bigotry of Orlando’s relatives, she manages to remain courteous while still standing firm – putting to shame their boorish and disrespectful treatment of her.  Wrestling to hold on to her sense of self-worth, she responds to a system rigged in favor of hetero-normal identity not by devolving into a spiral of self-pity and self-destructive but by finding solace in the things that reinforce her sense of self-worth, such as the love of her sister and her passion for singing.

She does falter, of course; after a particularly humiliating – and harrowing – encounter with a group of loutish bullies, she resorts to the numbing oblivion of anonymous sex in a crowded nightclub before reclaiming her power and her pride on the dance floor.   Moments of human frailty notwithstanding, it’s her positive, pro-active approach that ultimately shines through, giving her the ability to stand up against her oppressors – which she does in a memorable climactic scene that delivers both catharsis and righteous satisfaction to her emotional journey.

Of course, Marina’s strength as a character would be lost without a performer of equal strength in the role, and thankfully, “A Fantastic Woman” has found the perfect match in Daniela Vega – a real life trans singer (the magnificent contralto voice heard in the film is her own) who was originally approached by Lelio to act as a consultant before he decided to cast her as his lead.  Bringing the weight of her own experiences to the screen, she creates an unforgettable portrait of resilience.  Tender and demure yet spirited and ferocious, the bravery and honesty of her work gives us a Marina who is not only immediately likable but who gains our respect – as opposed to our pity – as the film goes on.  The raw power of this performance makes it one of the year’s outstanding turns by an actress on the big screen – deserving of the already-brewing buzz about a potential Oscar nod – and allows the movie itself to live up to its title.

Though Vega carries the bulk of the film on her capable shoulders, there is also some nice work from her fellow cast members.  Francisco Reyes does a fine job as Orlando; he generates a deep impression during his all-too-brief appearance, giving tangibility to Marina’s grief and creating a lingering memory which is as haunting to the audience as it is to her.  Aline Küppenheim and Nicolás Saavedra (as Orlando’s estranged wife and son, respectively) bring enough humanity to their roles to prevent them from becoming mere hateful caricatures, and Nicolás Saavedra successfully walks the thin line between professional courtesy and personal antipathy as a case-worker ostensibly assigned to help Marina in the aftermath of her tragedy.

As for the film itself, Lelio, working from a screenplay co-written by himself and Gonzalo Maza, has largely avoided over-the-top histrionics or soap-opera melodrama in favor of a restrained, contemplative approach.  Though throughout the story there are omnipresent reminders of the very real oppression of transgender people, “A Fantastic Woman” chooses to focus its attention on the personal quest for self-actualization instead of dwelling on social issues.  These things are neither ignored nor downplayed; rather, they are duly noted as Marina gets on with the business of rising above them.  As a result, what might have been a bleak and disheartening tale of transphobia becomes an uplifting portrait of personal triumph – sending a refreshingly positive message into a world wrapped (for the moment, at least) in regressive fear and uncertainty.

As a side note, “A Fantastic Woman,” which is a Chilean/German co-production, is one of five LGBTQ-themed titles that have been officially submitted for an Oscar nomination as Best Foreign Language Film.  Along with the others – Norway’s “Thelma,” France’s “BPM: Beats Per Minute,” South Africa’s “The Wound,” and Finland’s “Tom of Finland” – it stands as a positive representation of the community within a media that has been traditionally either hostile or indifferent to it.  Its an unlikely event that these five films would end up being the official slate of nominees; but odds are good that at least one of them will make the cut – and if that’s the case, it’s a win for all of us.

(Update: since the original publication of this review, “A Fantastic Woman” received the Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language Film of 2017 – though Daniela Vega was not nominated for her performance, she still has the distinction of being the first trans actress to lead an Oscar-nominated film.)