Sebastián Lelio’s Disobedience moves with the force and determination of a slow-moving train gradually picking up speed. The film starts out in a London synagogue with an Orthodox Jewish rabbi named Rav Krushka (Anton Lesser) talking about the beauty of what makes us different from all other beings on the planet is our ability to choose. We can follow the norms of our society or we can choose to be disobedient. We are introduced to his daughter Ronit (Rachel Weisz) who is living a world away in New York when she gets a call that her father has died of pneumonia. The contrast between the two scenes couldn’t be starker. In the first the room is dominated by old, bearded men with almost their entire body covered in cloth and then we’re in an open studio where a woman is photographing a shirtless old man covered in tattoos. Both opening scenes are simple and beautiful. Though the film is about a repressed society, the characters are presented honestly and fairly, despite some of them being quite rigid in their views, and throughout the film Lelio is careful not to pass judgement on his characters.
Ronit travels back to London and the relationships between the characters are slowly revealed to the audience. She reconnects with Dovid (Alessandro Nivola) who was Rav’s disciple and heir. When Ronit and Dovid see each other after so many years, at first they appear to be siblings because of their familial bond, but over time we discover they were best friends as kids, with another girl named Esti (Rachel McAdams). Esti and Dovid are now married and she appears hostile at Ronit’s return but this initial reaction is not exactly as it seems. Lelio unravels the intimate bonds that exist between the characters and their complicated history. To give a more detailed plot summary of the film would be an injustice to the nuanced way that Lelio, his screenwriting collaborator Rebecca Lenkiewicz and editor Nathan Nugent lay out the story and its intricacies.
Lelio’s films showcase women who are defiantly pushing against the arbitrary and fluid societal boundaries that exist in their community. Lelio’s last film, A Fantastic Woman (Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language Film) was about a trans woman who suffers the abuse and humiliations of her deceased partner’s family after his sudden death. There is a scene where she is literally walking against the powerful wind that almost knocks her over and her body is nearly at a 45 degree angle struggling to stay up. The imagery in Disobedience isn’t as overdone and the elders in their community are more passively-aggressive but the push against that culture’s norms are just as powerful.
The film takes the event of the death of a patriarch to examine the relationships of the three individuals at its core. Though the film is set in a very narrow environment, the themes it explores are universal – that of the burdens of those who stay and those who leave. To that end, the three leads are terrific with Rachel McAdams standing out. Her performance is measured and powerful, continuing the fine work she’s done in other recent films like Spotlight. Weisz manages to show the pain of someone who had the courage to leave her home and the strictures of her society but now lives permanently on the outside from her friends and family. Nivola resists the urge to make his character oppressive despite trying to maintain the patriarchal restrictions of his community. The film slowly builds tension throughout and the ending is one that is surprising, touching and resonant.
The theatre director Katie Mitchell and her frequent collaborator, playwright Alice Birch have been called “radically experimental” and “unapologetically controversial”. Their latest collaboration The Death of Malady, a re-imagining of Marguerite Duras’ novella, which recently had a limited run at the Barbican is a bold production, but unfortunately the risks don’t pay off as well as some of their other works. A narrator (Irène Jacob) sits onstage in a sound booth while a sex worker (Laetitia Dosch) waits for a man who has hired her to spend multiple nights with him in a hotel room and consent to whatever he wants. The man (Nick Fletcher) provokes her to this challenge so that he could find out what it means to love. On stage there is a small crew filming the action which is projected on an overhead screen. The passage of time is presented in a clever way and because your attention is shifted between the action taking place on stage and what is on the screen you don’t notice the subtle ways they shift to the following day or to another location. As the play progresses these shifts are more intentionally clear.
The play is listed as a work of “live cinema” and the results of this are mixed. The cinema staging serves to move the action along from one place to another and to jump back and forth in time. As the events taking place are erotic and sexually manipulative, it also serves as a commentary on pornography (a subject Birch explored in her play We Want You To Watch). The man has hired this woman to watch her and perform whatever sexual acts he desires and the audience is also serving as a voyeur watching these actors perform for them.
In the original novella Marguerite Duras includes a note at the end of ideas on how best to stage it for the theatre and it has inspired many productions including this one. The biggest difference between the novella and the play is that the action shifts from the perspective of the man to the woman. In the novella you know almost nothing of the woman’s background while in the play there are flashbacks of her as a little girl coming home to find her father has committed suicide and how that relates to what she’s currently going through. In the novella the mysterious nature of both characters feels surreal. Though the woman is paid money in the novella, we find out she’s not a prostitute but only accepted his proposal because she knows he’s suffering from “the malady of death”. This serves to give the story a more romantic quality than the play, which is much more violent and aggressive. In the play it’s clear that the woman is a prostitute and she even sets boundaries for what can and can’t be done, when at one point he goes too far and starts choking her. There is a romance in the novella that is purposefully stripped from the theatrical version because Birch and Mitchell force you to consider the reality of a woman being placed in this scenario. The only thing that would compel someone to participate in this is if they were in dire need of the money. In the novella the woman is such an elusive figure that you never know if she (or he for that matter) really exists. In the play the woman is much more grounded and we see glimpses of her life outside of the hotel room. There is a poetry in the novella that when translated to the stage comes off as pretentious, which is not helped by the black and white images that look like a bad French New Wave film.
Mitchell and Birch’s last collaboration Anatomy of a Suicide at the Royal Court Theatre was an audacious work with perfect staging and direction. It was centered around the stories of three generations of women and intersected them with all of the actors on stage with the dialogue and action jumping from one time period to another. The play is about the trauma that is passed down in a family and through its clever staging was able to express how one generation affects the other in a seamless way. Unfortunately the bold risks taken in that play didn’t translate as successfully in their adaptation of The Malady of Death.