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by Jay Seaver

"Makes its points with authority and not much dissent."
4 stars

SCREENED AT INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL BOSTON 2018: I wonder, a bit, how "Disobedience" plays for people who find religion to be of value in their lives. Does that perspective lend the characters' struggles extra nuance, with shadings that the non-religious cannot see, or does it make the film seem harsher and more dismissive? That's something its makers may be perfectly fine with - though earnest and precise in their storytelling, they are not exactly subtle - although it sometimes creates the feeling that something is missing from an otherwise excellent film.

Rav Krushka (Anton Lesser) has just died in the middle of a sermon in a London synagogue, and his daughter Ronit (Rachel Weisz) - a photographer working in New York under the name "Ronnie Curtis" might never have known if someone hadn't sent word to a local shul; she left the community years ago and has been persona non grata there ever since, to the point where the paper reported that the elder Kushka died childless. She still opts to return to observe shabbat, cautiously welcomed by Dovid Kuperman (Alessandro Nivola), her father's prize student who, in Ronit's absence, married her best friend Esti (Rachel McAdams). Though "best friend" understates things; the mutual attraction of these two women was the scandal that led to Ronit's self-exile.

I've long suspected that if you dropped Rachel McAdams into an earlier Hollywood era, she'd be a far bigger star than she is now and maybe more respected as well; her hits as a lead have tended to skew more toward female audience than the films which get the most coverage, and she's seldom been given the best part in an ensemble cast. She's terrific in this and maybe won't get her due because the film isn't obviously built around her character so much as it is Rachel Weisz's Ronit, but McAdams's Esti is always the one worth watching. McAdams sells the tongue-tied surprise at Ronit's return as well as the long-simmering resentment over her departure, and brings out an entertainingly barbed tongue without the stretches where she seems to fit into her conservative community seeming entirely false. Esti's the one with decisions to make right now, and McAdams makes that clear without a lot of obvious hand-wringing.

The structure of the film has things more obviously centered around Rachel Weisz's Ronit, and Weisz also turns in a strong performance. She does a neat job of showing Ronit's restraint hidden underneath the seemingly brash character who gets to be openly sarcastic and often angry from the start. She seems like she should explode at every indignity to which her father's beliefs have subjected her, but she gives the impression of liking people and even if she hates the situation they're willingly part of (particularly Dovid, played by Alessandra Nivola with a friendly nature despite his tendency toward a rigid view of the world). Ronit doesn't have the sort of journey that Esti does, but she's got a rich present.

They're both need to enliven this film, a dour thing that plods through orthodox religious misery, never missing a moment to highlight just how joyless the ritual is until the pair get to show some much-needed spark. Director SebastiƔn Lelio and his co-writers & crew seem quietly relentless about this, from the opening scene in the synagogue where the other old rabbis look drained or even dead well before Rav Krushka collapses to all the scenes where women are shown donning or removing wigs not far removed from their natural hair, an activity seemingly pointless beyond conditioning people to follow instructions. At least, that's how Lelio presents it, though he makes sure that there are comments about "suggested" Friday intercourse and how Ronit's father was so engrossed in his studying of the Torah's minutiae that he ignored what went on around him. It's a fair position to take, but it may be a bit unbalanced for it - by offering up little that this community's religion offers them, it kind of sucks some of the drama out of the situation.

This doesn't cause the movie to bog down as it could; Lelio manages to keep things moving without cranking the melodrama up too high. It stumbles a bit at spots, especially toward in the final stretch, when it vacillates somewhat between the familiar beats of women in repressive communities and characters who feel impressively individual. Even then, though, it manages to find moments of surprising warmth amid the potentially

And it does also feel like the filmmakers reach the perfect place to end and then keep going. That's a small stumble, though, for a fairly solid film. It may not do everything, but it does what it puts its mind to very well.

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originally posted: 05/04/18 13:43:56
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2017 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.

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  27-Apr-2018 (R)
  DVD: 17-Jul-2018


  DVD: 17-Jul-2018

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