Though not as edgy and explosive as that of Daniela Vega in Sebastián Lelio’s Oscar-winning “A Fantastic Woman,” Rachel Weisz’s nuanced performance in Lelio’s “Disobedience” is in some ways more affecting. So much so that it overcomes the film’s indecisive ending.
Such indecision on the part of the filmmaker is surprising, because the film opens with a sermon on the nature of choice. In a London orthodox synagogue, Rabbi Rav Krushka (Anton Lesser) physically labors as he delivers a homily about free will, about how the ability to choose whether or not to obey divine commandments distinguishes human beings from beasts and angels. To the horror of the congregation, he then collapses and dies.
Meanwhile, in New York, Krushka's estranged daughter, Ronit (Weisz), pursues her career as a photographer. Informed of her father's demise, the distraught Ronit engages in frantic intercourse with a stranger in a public bathroom, takes a flight to London, and shows up among the mourners at the home of Dovid (Alessandro Nivola), who is her childhood friend and her father's protégé and successor. Does the chilly reception she receives there, and Dovid's discomfort, hint at some scandal that may have been why Ronit left for New York? And why is Ronit upset when she learns that Dovid has married her best friend, Esti (Rachel McAdams)?
Much of the film plays out in such scenarios — public occasions disrupted by private tragedies or personal indiscretions. A dinner party, a school class, even another synagogue sermon are interrupted by some intrusion of physical or spiritual unruliness. On the other hand, agents of social repression almost always frustrate any furtive attempts at intimacy.
Not much opportunity for the expression of free will here. Unlike the vivid, complex worlds evoked in Rama Burshtein's films about Haredi Jews in Tel Aviv or Joshua Z. Weinstein's depiction of Brooklyn's Hasidic community in "Menashe" (2017), the enclave in Lelio's film offers little in the way of humor, vitality, or passion. His palette of blacks, whites, grays, and browns and shots of claustrophobic interiors reflect a mood of oppression and melancholy. When the image of a distant tree in a field or the eruption of the Cure's "Lovesong" on a radio breaks the gloom, the effect is startling.
In such surroundings, Ronit's ebullient spirit spreads vivacity, discontent, and resentment. She offers the possibility of choice — between secular independence or religious tradition. But Lelio opts for an insipid neutrality that does a disservice to both.
Directed by Sebastián Lelio. Written by Lelio and Rebecca Lenkiewicz, based on the book by Naomi Alderman. Starring Rachel Weisz, Rachel McAdams, Alessandro Nivola. At Boston Common, Kendall Square, West Newton. 114 minutes. R (some strong sexuality).