Chilean-Argentine director Sebastián Lelio chooses an unlikely setting for his first English language film: the austere surrounds of a North London orthodox Jewish community. It begins with something of a mission statement: an ageing rabbi, in what turn out to be his final sermon, asks what it means to be disobedient. The angels cannot deviate from God’s plan, he says, while animals rely on instinct alone. Disobedience – in this context a synonym for freedom – is uniquely human.
We’re then introduced to Ronit Krushka (Rachel Weisz), a British photographer living in New York and publishing her work under the anglicised “Ronnie Curtis”. She skates glumly around an ice-rink and has dispiriting sex in a toilet cubical. All is not right, we sense, in the life of this woman. It transpires that the rabbi who keeled over at the altar was her father, and so she makes the journey home to north London.
The community of her childhood is stultifying, claustrophobic and unbearably grey. Lelio’s film appears to be shot on location in a series of cramped Georgian terraced houses, the camera struggling to frame a full shot, always hovering a little too close to its subjects. The tension is palpable, the walls pushing in.
There’s a scene in which Ronit attends a social gathering and it brought memories flooding back from my own childhood, when my father used to do business in the orthodox community; everything from the swirly brown carpets to the cabinets stacked with knick-knacks and religious ephemera feels absolutely authentic.
Ronit’s crucial disobedience is reigniting a sexual relationship with her childhood best friend Esti (Rachel McAdams), who is now married to her other childhood best friend Dovid (Alessandro Nivola). Their attraction is immediate and overwhelming. There’s an animal intensity to their scenes together that captures the unbridled, destructive lust of adolescence. Sex is inevitable, and when it happens – far from north London – it’s joyous and primal, a release of tension for the audience as much as for the characters. It’s also, on a more base level, really, really hot, featuring one of the most straightforwardly sexy sex scenes in recent memory. The thought of Rachel Weisz spitting in Rachel McAdams’ mouth makes me need to go and have a lie down.
Disobedience is long and often uncomfortable. It asks difficult questions about our place in the world: what we owe to our respective tribes; whether we can ever escape family ties; the wisdom of trying to run away from ourselves. But it rewards patience, being at once provocative and kind, probing without passing judgement. It’s the work of a director and three actors at their absolute peak, and that makes for electric viewing..