Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Tue May 08, 2018 2:47 pm 
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RACHEL MCADAMS AND NAOMI WEISZ IN DISOBEDIENCE

Jet lag

Recent films about orthodox Jewish life have been astonishingly enjoyable, rich, and varied. Rama Burshtein's Fill the Void (NYFF 2012), about an arranged marriage, made the restricted, male-dominated world glow like an advertisement. Haim Tabakman's 2009 Eyes Wide Open was a humdinger of a tragic, doomed gay love affair, among butchers, no less. Last year's Menashe, by Joshoa Z. Weinstein, all in Yiddish, was sweet and full of life in its depiction of a man striving for full custody of his little boy after his wife dies. In broad-brimmed hat and long sidelocks, Jesse Eisenberg was both adorable and very naughty as a hassidic Jewish drug-runner (a true story!) in the 2010 Holy Rollers, essentially a crime thriller. Except for some nice cantoring and beautiful choral singing, Disobedience fails to make anything interesting or appealing of its exotic, off-kilter world. Its London orthodox Jews are just dull folks with no sense of humor.

The setup is't all that promising to begin with because it basically stirs up excitement that fizzles from the get-go. In Disobedience, a beautiful, wayward woman called Ronit (Rachel Weisz), a bixesual photographer living in New York, returns to the orthodox Jewish community in London which she left long ago, to attend obsequies and to recover the candlesticks of her mother after her father (Anton Lesser), a rabbi revered for his wisdom, has died. Her presence re-arouses still-simmering feelings from a scandalous lesbian relationship Ronit once had with Esti (Rachel McAdams), now wife of the deceased rabbi's favorite student and expected successor, Dovid Kuperman (Alessandro Nivola). And then Ronit goes back to New York, alone. Wherein lies the "disobedience"? In the end, "velleity" might have been a more fitting title, though certainly the Kupermans' equilibrium has been shaken, or the lack of it revealed, by Ronit's visit.

Sebastián Lelio achieved very successful cinematic results and garnered an international following out of his focus on the fair sex in Gloria (NYFF 2013) and his transgender-based Best Foreign Oscar winner A Fantastic Woman. Here he gets to focus on two pretty women in an exotic location. But the result is a misfire, much ado in a humorless, grim ethnic setting the director (whose previous three films were made in Spanish in his native Chile) shows little feel for. It all falls flat, despite efforts from well-known actors and beautiful, if monochromatic, images.

Not having read Naomi Alderman's source novel, I went to the Guardian review by Dina Rabinovitch (4 Mar. 2006). She reports that the book makes much of the anonymity of its setting, the northwest London suburb of Hendon. The movie never makes it clear the anonymity is not the filmmaking but the place. Rarely has such handsome cinematography (by distinguished dp Danny Cohen) wound up being so visually uninteresting. The editing conveys little sense of space or place. Locations blend into each other. Except for a big synagogue and a Jewish cemetery, it's all just walls, woodwork, taxi, Heathrow. Ronit's protested jet lag seems to pervade the atmosphere and turn it all gray. The rest is lost in lifeless editing and flat, sometimes inaudible dialogue.

Dovid mostly merely seems uncomfortable with Ronit; the film fails to dramatize that this is a love triangle, that Ronit was once involved with both Esti and the man she has now married. Nivola maintains an ornate, self-important manner, as if channeling Daniel Day-Lewis, but, imprisoned in downbeat Jewish garb, close-cropped hair, wire-rimmed specs, and yarmulke, he delivers a performance far from the authority of Day-Lewis. And authority was needed, and outrage, not mere discomfort.

Does Naomi Weisz smolder, or only smoke, or not even smoke but merely long for a smoke? Sometimes she just fiddles with an unlit cigarette, or holds one in her mouth. She is not allowed to smoke in the spare room she's given. She would have done better to have followed her original plan to stay at a hotel. But then we'd have been spared some of the uncomfortable situations that are this film's raison d'être.

Eventually, between uncomfortable get-togethers with family and rabbinical members of the community, Ronit pulls the ambivalent but nonetheless eager Esti away to London proper where they can find a room to have a snog and a shag. But this comes too early or too late. Disobedience lacks momentum or good pacing. The Guardian review of the book calls it "writing-by-numbers" and says "there is no real life" in it. If that's true, Lelio and his partner on the screenplay Rebecca Lenkiewicz have done an all-too-faithful job of adaptation. But other reviews suggest the novel, though unsatisfactory, is nonetheless more complex than this film, exploring in more detail the main characters and orthodox community that remain opaque or sketchy onscreen. Lelio is completing a self-remake of Gloria in English and set in Los Angeles. Let's hope he adapts to Hollywood better than he did to Hendon. Didobedience promises less than it performs from the title forward.

Disobedience, 114 mins., debuted at Toronto Sept. 2017 and was shown at nine other international festivals, including Tribeca in Apr. 2018. Its US release began 27 Apr. UK release 28 Sept. Metascore 74.

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