Sunday 2 December 2018

Under the eyes of God: "Disobedience"

First Reformed, Apostasy, now Disobedience: we really did figure out what to do with religion at the movies this year. The improbable financial success of the first God's Not Dead suggested there was an audience who'd been praying for a faith-movie revival, but maybe we needed to get past this born-again genre's fundamentalist true-believer stage - the unimpeachable protagonists, the divine narrative intervention - to re-engage with properly conflicted, flesh-and-blood human beings, circling one another beneath the eye of their particular, not-always-kindly Gods. Sebastián Lelio's adaptation of Naomi Alderman's book offers three eminent examples of the form. Ronit (Rachel Weisz) is a photographer recalled from boho New York to her devoutly Jewish North London home turf after news breaks of her rabbi father's death; offering to put her up for the duration of the commemorations are Dovid (Alessandro Nivola), the rabbi's protégé, and his meek-seeming schoolmarm wife Esti (Rachel McAdams). Alderman's novel unfolded as a book of revelations, and so it goes here: Ronit makes an early faux pas in failing to spot which of the female mourners her old pal Dovid has married, but there's an even bigger revelation ahead, born of the relationship between the two women, which likely explains why we first found Ronit in exile.

In the meantime, the viewer bears witness to the detailed reconstruction of a world with its own customs, secrets and boundaries. It quickly becomes apparent that an unorthodox free-thinker like Roni - with her cigarettes and foul mouth, her untroubled womb - has no truck with these restrictions, and that this world has no obvious place for her in turn: it's hurtful enough that she should be glossed over in the rabbi's obit, let alone to learn she's been cut out of dad's will. (So much for forgiveness and charity.) Geographically, we're not far from the stomping ground of TV comedy hit Friday Night Dinner - the supporting cast is well-stocked with performers who might well cameo chez Goodman - but this suburb appears a newly sombre and serious place, occupied from its very first scene (the rabbi collapsing mid-sermon while on the brink of some revelation of his own regarding free will) with matters of life and death. Nevertheless, Lelio - a surprisingly effective choice, arriving off the back of March's rainbow-hued Oscar-winner A Fantastic Woman - works small miracles of variation within the film's carefully limited visual styling. The wigs that lent razzle-dazzle to the earlier film's Marina in her guise as a nightclub chanteuse are here just another way for the characters to conceal their true selves, and - working capably with local cinematographer Danny Cohen (This is England, Room) - Lelio displays a sure feel for cold, damp commuter-belt exteriors: we possibly needed a Latin American filmmaker to highlight just how central layering up is to English emotional repression.

The intelligently structured script, credited to Lelio and Rebecca Lenkiewicz (Ida), sets us waiting for these coats, mantles and other fronts to be cast off - as they are in a mid-film hotel hook-up infused with such wild melodrama as to seem a real liberation. Yet we're also left fearing what will become of these three once certain truths are made public, and they risk incurring the wrath of - if not God - then of the thunderously controlling men of this parish. Throughout, these characters seem fascinatingly vulnerable, mortal. Nivola's Dovid appears lost in his faith, muttering his daily prayers like a man whose existence is unravelling; as Roni, Weisz - quietly becoming one of our most interesting actresses - has a wounded quality that undercuts the character's fierceness, continually putting up brittle defences against a community that hurt her badly in the past. Both find a notable foil in McAdams' alertness: those ocular flickers that mark Esti as very much open to the possibilities Roni has brought back from the New World, but also reveal the conscience of someone harbouring secrets she desperately wants to guard. For something shot on the drizzly outskirts of Hendon, it's an unexpectedly sexy watch - perhaps the closest the British film industry has come to a movie like Witness, populated by people who would be totally DTF were it not for the all-seeing eyes around and about them - but it's quietly stirring in other grown-up ways, too, not least in the final reel, as these wanderers reorient themselves towards truth and love, in ways that feel less sappy than genuinely hard-earned.

Disobedience is now playing in selected cinemas, and streaming via Curzon.

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