Dare Not Speak: Sebastián Lelio’s 'Disobedience' explores forbidden love in an Orthodox Jewish community

Movies Features

Between Glorias—his breakout Chilean film of 2013 and his forthcoming American remake of 2018—44-year-old writer-director Sebastián Lelio has struck a mother lode of cinematic gold and glory with the two films he premiered last fall at the Toronto International Film Festival. His IMDB tally: “29 wins & 25 nominations.”

The first—A Fantastic Woman, about a transgender woman fighting for the right to mourn her older, married, bisexual boyfriend—waltzed off with the Golden Guy as Best Foreign-Language Film at the 2018 Academy Awards. The other, his English-language debut—Disobedience, about a free-spirited female who returns to her Orthodox Jewish roots in North London and her lesbian lover from childhood—is coasting into general release from Bleecker Street April 27 on a wave of raves from its Toronto launch.

There hasn’t been a one-two arrival punch like that since—well, since the previous fall when fellow Chilean director Pablo Larraín (who, incidentally, produced the first Gloria and A Fantastic Woman) hit Toronto with his pair of award contenders: Neruda, an “anti-biopic” on the exiled Chilean poet which represented Chile for the 2016 Foreign-Language Film Oscar, and Jackie, his take on the newly widowed Jacqueline Kennedy that put Natalie Portman in the Oscar running for Best Actress.

So it’s small wonder Lelio found himself being saluted last fall by festival scribes as “one of the brightest lights of Chile’s golden generation of filmmakers”—a distinction he modestly dirt-kicks aside as marvelous timing rather than calculated planning.

“I knew what they meant by saying that, but I don’t operate that way,” he admitted recently in a phone interview. “My cause is cinema. I just like to make films. That’s all I care about. I know Chile is going through a very special moment right now, and I’m proud of that—proud of the entire generation behind this film movement.”

He was also taken aback a bit when the press started congratulating him on completing his “trilogy.” It seems, goes their argument, the trans Fantastic Woman and the Orthodox Jewish lesbians of Disobedience are cinematic sisters to the Gloriaswho bookend both of those films: a middle-aged divorcée looking for love in dance halls (Paulina Garcia in ’13, Julianne Moore in ’18). Although their struggles and objectives are different, these are all strong women who cross societal boundaries.

This penchant for female-led film explorations, Lelio insists, is not “some part of a strategy or agenda. I just believe in following my intuition, whatever intrigues me. These are not women we are used to being exposed to. They should be secondary characters, really, existing on the fringes of society, but I’ve put them in the absolute center and made their portraits an examination as well as an exaltation. I like to see them fall, then stand up and find the tools to overcome what they’re going through.”

The screen rights to Disobedience, Naomi Alderman’s 2006 novel, were acquired by a native of North London, Oscar winner Rachel Weisz, who saw the Spanish-speaking Gloria and decided Lelio was perfect to adapt and direct the film version—despite the language barrier. Happily, that deficiency was an asset: “The alien perspective let me concentrate on what was going on, on a human level among the characters. I accepted the assignment because the story was beautiful and it was really an amazing challenge to have to learn about a world that you didn’t know much about.”

Here, Lelio functions as designated tour guide for all strangers in a strange land, learning on the job, tentatively inching into the secretive ways of life and traditions and customs of North London Orthodox Jews. “I felt I had a strange familiarity to this world and story, even though I am not British or Jewish, but there was something about the dynamics of those characters, trying to be themselves, operating against an oppressive background with a very concrete, fixed set of ideas.”

Weisz plays a photographer in New York who returns home for the funeral of her rabbi father. His congregation greets her with disdain as the black sheep who bolted from the Orthodox Jewish life to form her own identity on another continent, but the visit does rekindle romantic affairs with the rabbi who’s her father’s heir apparent (Alessandro Nivola) and, troublingly, his wife (Rachel McAdams). These overlapping triangles grind to a life-changing conclusion in an already complicated world.

The two Rachels originally met in 2012 on a one-day shoot for a scene that was subsequently cut from Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder, but Lelio was present when they met again—for Disobedience. “I had strong, strong feelings this combination was going to be electric and strange and beautiful,” he recalls, “and, when I saw them walking in and sitting down in front of me, I was over the moon, because it was so clear to me that there was real chemistry between them. I could actually see it.”

Nivola, as the odd man out in this triangle, also draws praise from Lelio. “He really, really gave everything he had—that was my impression,” the director relays. “He became an Orthodox Jew, and the process of his transformation was quite a thing to witness. He started to work on the role by getting close to Orthodox Jews in New York where he lives, and when he got to London—because he’s so good with accents—the Orthodox Jews we worked with thought he was one of them. He really went for it and managed to create this very layered performance that represents—simultaneously with great authority and grace—a type of masculinity that is rare.”

Lelio, who co-authored the screenplay with Ida scripter Rebecca Lenkiewicz, has said that he writes characters as a device to get to the persons interpreting the roles.

“I’m interested in people, and I love characters—up to a point, then the actors take charge, and it’s all about the artistic battle the actors give in front of the camera. I promise to protect them in the editing and urge them to take chances and risk.”

To his credit, Lelio did not lay the film’s primary source of conflict at the doorstep of the community. Rather, he placed it squarely on the shoulders of the conflicted trio in the center ring. “The easy thing to do would have been to make the community really bad and super-strict—like a villain—but the real antagonism was inside these three people. Two of them belonged to the community, so the precise set of rules and understanding of the world was very important, but Rachel Weisz’s character had run away from those rules and managed to shape a new persona in a new world.

“What connects them is the fact that the main obstacles are within the characters themselves. I think films are really beautiful when they capture the light and the shadow of a person. In this case, I really tried to embrace this complexity in the portraying of the characters as well as the community as honestly as I could.”

For a Chilean who now film-makes in English, Lelio is based—bizarrely!—in Berlin, of all places. “Six years ago, they gave me a grant and invited me there for a year,” he explains. “I fell in love with the city, and I stayed and stayed and stayed until it became officially my home. The paradox is that I haven’t been to Berlin for longer than two-week spurts in two years because I’ve made three films back-to-back.”

He can’t say what language he’ll be writing and directing in next, but, being a wide-eyed newcomer to the international spotlight, it’s safe to say he’ll see little of home.