When one thinks about an Orthodox Jewish community, a same-sex romance between two women is not the first thing that comes to mind. But for acclaimed filmmaker Sebastian Lelio, the personal love story was the focus of interest when he agreed to helm the film adaptation of Naomi Alderman’s book Disobedience. Lelio’s claim to fame came from female-oriented dramas like Gloria and Fantastic Woman, which got him an Oscar this year for the best foreign language film. So stories about women’s struggles in society are his forte, but coming from a Catholic upbringing in Chile, the Jewish tradition and rabbinic life were totally unfamiliar to him. In an interview with Tablet, Lelio admitted that while his lack of knowledge about the Jewish world was quite a scary hurdle, he found it intriguing, challenging, and enticing.
“It’s very secretive, so unless you are invited, you don’t get to see it,” said Lelio, who shot some of the most impressive scenes in a synagogue in London, where the story takes place. “I felt so lucky to be there and just take a look, and in a certain way, and I say it with respect, it was an invitation to go and film on a different planet, where they worship a god, where they dress in a very particular way, where they have their rules, moral and behavioral rules. So it’s almost like Sci-Fi. So from a filmmaker point of view, it was a fascinating world to visit. And I guess that was my way into the story, because when I started to try and write it, I was paralyzed because I didn’t know. I’m not Jewish, I’m not British. I was the ultimate alien.”
What helped Lelio achieve his breakthrough moment in the script, which he wrote with Rebeca Lenkiewicz, was the love story at the film’s core. It takes place in an Orthodox Jewish community in London that has just lost its leader, Rabbi Krushka. When the rabbi’s estranged daughter and only child Ronit (played by Rachel Weisz, who also produced the film) arrives from New York to attend her father’s funeral, she’s treated coldly by the community. Her father’s followers had all cut their ties with her when she drifted away from the faith, all but Dovid Kuperman (Alessandro Nivola), the rabbi’s brightest student and his heir apparent in the synagogue, who was a close friend of Ronit’s growing up. Under his wing, rebellious Ronit is being accepted again by the community. But when Ronit’s lust for Dovid’s wife Esti (Rachel McAdams) emerges, the fragile stability of this intimate triangle is shaken, as well as the whole environment surrounding them.
“I thought of it as a fairytale,” Lelio explained, “a story of a princess that comes back from exile to the realm from which she was expelled. The king, her father, had died. The throne is empty, and the successor who will take power is her friend who is now married to the woman who was her first love. So it’s like Shakespeare. That was my way in. All of a sudden I felt free to write about that. I know about storytelling and I could concentrate on the architecture of the story and the arcs of the characters and later on I would take care of the cultural nuances.”
To do that, Lelio and his crew were assisted by as many as twelve local advisors. “People from within the community were very generous with helping us,” he said. “So we were highly obsessed with trying to get the texture right in order to be able to forget about it and concentrate on what I cared about the most, the three people who were being portrayed.”
Despite his gentile and smiley demeanor, Lelio doesn’t shy away from controversial topics, even though he always approaches his provocative subjects with humanity, tenderness, and understanding. In Gloria, he followed an older woman in search of love in Santiago’s club scene, while in Fantastic Woman the main character is a mourning trans woman who deals with her dead lover’s hostile family members. Disobedience is his first film in English (his American remake of Gloria, starring Julianne Moore, is set to come out later this year), and when he was asked about the controversial aspects of the film, Lelio was hesitant, possibly even naïve about the backlash his film might meet from Jewish audiences. “We have to go step by step and see what will happen, I don’t know,” he said. “I guess I need to find an answer when somebody is feeling really confronted. I’m not sure if it will happen really.”
What makes things more complicated for Lelio is the long, passionate sex scene Weisz and McAdams share as Ronit and Esti let themselves be carried away with their passion in a hotel room, far enough from the suspicious eyes of the community members. “I think that sex can be spiritual, and there is something sexual in what is spiritual as well, so those things are the same extremes of the same phenomena,” explained the director. “For me that is the heart of the film. When it comes to the love story, I knew that it had to be long and it had to be very specific, and I didn’t want to make it about nudity but about what is going on inside them. That why it’s all about the other frame, and their faces, the specific acts they do like lovers do.”
The movie, which premiered at the Toronto Film Festival last September, is being screened at the Tribeca Film Festival this week and opens in New York City this weekend. So far, the reviews have been positive, with some critics noting that while the film presents unavoidable criticism of the Orthodox society and its intolerance of same-sex relationships, it also shows a lot of respect for the community and its intrinsic set of rules.
“For me, the real antagonistic force is not really coming from the community, even though it plays a role,” Lelio said. “Really, it’s coming from within the characters themselves. Ronit, Dovid, and Esti are the ones who are impeding themselves in order to move forward to the next level. So they are their own main obstacle… What I’m interested in is how this is impalpable to any human society, because every human society has its lights and shadows, and its prohibitions and things that are more advanced. There is no perfect human society and there are no perfect human beings so what I’m interested in is trying to portray it with complexity, without making the community the villains. That would have been too easy.”