Some spoilers below for Disobedience.
Disobedience, based on Naomi Alderman’s award-winning 2006 novel of the same name, is a story of women finding long-sought solace in each other. Successful New York City photographer Ronit (Rachel Weisz) returns to the Orthodox Jewish community in London that she ran away from as a teenager when she receives word that her father — the Rav, or the community’s most beloved rabbi — has died. An already awkward homecoming gets more complicated when she discovers Esti (Rachel McAdams), the former classmate with whom she had a same-sex romance when the two were teenagers, and Dovid (Alessandro Nivola), their childhood friend who became the Rav’s protégé, are married. Old passions rekindle, religious authority is tested, and the question of whether the support of a close-knit, insular community is worth more than the freedom to love whom you choose bubbles urgently to the surface.
So it was a perfect first foray into English-language filmmaking for Chilean director Sebastián Lelio. Lelio, 44, took home a Best Foreign Film Oscar this year for his transgender drama A Fantastic Woman and garnered critical acclaim for his 2013 work Gloria, an affectionate comedy about the romantic misadventures of a 58-year-old divorcée; when Disobedience arrived on the festival circuit last year, it was heralded as the third installment in his “trilogy of women.” Lelio spoke to Vulture about adapting Alderman’s novel, learning the secrets of a notoriously secretive community, and what went into crafting Disobedience’s mesmerizing climactic sex scene.
Encountering the Story
Before Lelio himself knew it was the perfect project for him, someone else did: producer Frida Torresblanco. “She and Rachel Weisz had watched my film Gloria,” he says, “and she said she thought I could be the right person for this story. I said, ‘Tell me, what is the story?’”
She did, Lelio says, and “I just loved it.” He was intrigued by its triangular love story, where three close school friends reunite in adulthood and become a sort of “family of lovers.” “I love this mess that they are,” he says.
And for Lelio, who grew up moving from one Chilean town to the next, Disobedience’s story of choosing not to conform even in an oppressive environment resonated on a personal level. “I grew up in a dictatorship in a very Catholic country,” he says. He doesn’t necessarily consider London’s Orthodox Jewish neighborhood of Hendon to be a dictatorship, he clarifies, “but it’s strict, to say the least. I have never been religious, but I’ve seen the strength of it.”
Assembling the Team
When Lelio decided to make Disobedience, he was “obsessed” with portraying Hendon accurately. “I didn’t know much about this community. No one does. Not even people who live in nearby neighborhoods,” Lelio says. So he spent hours talking to Alderman herself, who began writing Disobedience while still a member of the Hendon community and left after she’d finished it. Alderman was a natural and generous consultant, Lelio says; she even took him to a shop where Orthodox women buy the bodysuits they often use as undergarments or layering garments. “They can unbutton from the …!” Lelio gestures between his legs and laughs. “I love them! I was surprised to learn that [it was] not unusual for them to wear that. Underneath the wigs and the very unflattering clothes, there is something else.”
After Lelio had written the first two or three drafts (through the “violent process of adapting,” he calls it), he enlisted the help of playwright and screenwriter Rebecca Lenkiewicz, co-writer of the 2014 Polish drama Ida — specifically because, as he puts it, “English is not my language. She is a great playwright, and she added great texture to the dialogue.”
Casting the Rachels
Though he’d never watched the two women who would be the leads in his film interact, Lelio had a good feeling from the start. “I just had this strong feeling that they would have great chemistry,” he says. When the three finally met for a meal in a restaurant, Lelio finally watched McAdams and Weisz interact — and in an instant, he recognized exactly what he’d hoped to see. “I was over the moon.”
“There is something about them,” he says, “they’re like the inverses of each other. Like when you have a card with a queen, you have both the top and bottom reflecting each other. It’s like in a certain way they are the same woman.” Which surely lent itself well to their contrasting story lines in Disobedience. “In the film,” Lelio nods, “one escaped and lost her origin, and one stayed and lost herself.”
Making a Few Tweaks
When Lelio sat down to adapt the screenplay, he made a few departures from the novel’s story line. For starters, he changed Ronit’s occupation in New York from financial analyst to photographer.
“There is a certain rejection [in Orthodox Jewish communities] towards images,” Lelio says. Ronit’s obsession with imagery, then, he says, felt “subversive.”
The end of the film also notably strays from the book, in that the novel’s Esti, even after briefly rekindling her romance with Ronit and coming clean about it to her community, stays in Hendon to raise a child with Dovid. The movie’s Esti, meanwhile, asks Dovid for her freedom and makes moves toward leaving the community. Lelio says the new ending was the product of “a long discussion.”
“It was a lot of work to find a way to finish the story in a more open way,” he says. “I wanted to give all of them the chance to be in front of an open space. A space that is pure potential. Because you don’t really know what Dovid will do. Will he found a new synagogue, a new shul, or will Esti divorce him? Will she escape from the community? I don’t think so. And how Ronit’s life will change is also an open question.
“I love this idea of the things being in flux. Nothing being fixed, which is something that is a very Jewish idea,” he adds. “The novel was written in 2006, while Naomi was part of the community. My feeling was, I am not part of the community. I have nothing to lose. In a certain way, that allows me to be more irresponsible.”
That Sex Scene
Much has been written, here on Vulture and elsewhere, about the film’s tender, beautifully shot lesbian sex scene between McAdams and Weisz. Erotic without ever seeming exploitative, it functions as a sort of centerpiece for the film, and for Lelio, it was always meant to be that way. “I was a believer that the love scene, the sex scene, was the heart of the film. I was talking about that all the time,” he says.
The scene itself was a feat of choreography and chemistry: Minimally sketched out in the script (Lelio says it was “two or three sentences; ‘They make love, and they feel excruciating pleasure’”) and barely even implied in the novel, the scene came to life on Lelio’s storyboards.
“I presented the Rachels with this idea of, they go through stages. They start leaning up against a table. This and this happens. They are on the floor, and then, we will do that moment,” he says.
The tasteful eroticism of that scene in a London hotel can be partly chalked up to a challenge Lelio gave himself: “I was obsessed with the question, Is it possible to reach a high level of eroticism without showing skin?” he says. Clearly, it is — and to achieve precisely that, Lelio drew inspiration from Italian comic-book writer Milo Manara and his work from the 1970s.
“He portrayed women in a very glamorous way, but he uses a lot of the out-of-frame to tell the story,” Lelio says. “Their faces are lost in pleasure. You don’t see what’s really happening, but you know. It traps you, because you have to complete with your imagination what is not there.”
And whose idea was it to add the shot that serves as the centerpiece of the centerpiece, a surprisingly gorgeous close-up of Weisz gently spitting into McAdams’s mouth?
Lelio covers his mouth with his fingertips for a moment. “Oops,” he chuckles impishly. “Yeah, me.”