'Disobedience' Director on GLAAD-Nominated Film's Social Context: "It Comes From a Place of Emotion"

Disobedience-Alessandro Nivola- Still-Photofest-Sebastian Leilo Inset-v2-Getty-H 2019
Photofest; Inset: Getty Images

"There was something about this story in particular; it was very intimate and personal, and at the same time very political with its ability to resonate with wider subjects," said Lelio.

Set against the backdrop of the Orthodox Jewish community in present-day London, Disobedience follows a photographer (Rachel Weisz) returning home, where she was once shunned for her romantic desires, to deal with the death of her father. This leads to a reunion with her former lover (Rachel McAdams), who is now married to a rabbi (Alessandro Nivola). 

The film is helmed by Chilean director Sebastián Lelio, who wrote the screenplay together with Rebecca Lenkiewicz as an adaptation of Naomi Alderman's novel. It premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in 2017 and was released by Bleecker Street the following year.

In 2019, Disobedience was nominated for a GLAAD Media Award for outstanding film (limited release). Ahead of the May 4 ceremony, The Hollywood Reporter spoke with Lelio about why the film's characters struck a chord with him, how he portrayed Dovid's complex masculinity and the ways in which film as a visual medium can be a catalyst for political and social change. 

When you read Naomi Alderman’s novel, what did you find most impactful about the characters and the relationship between Ronit and Esti that compelled you to adapt the material?

There was something about this triangular love story that was very compelling; they are characters who are somehow pushed to certain limits and they have to overcome difficulties. The antagonistic force is not necessarily the community, it’s their own belief system. That was something I could relate to, and I like stories where characters are pushed to their limit because then you see what they’re really made of.

There aren’t many films about gay women in the orthodox Jewish landscape; was the subject an obstacle in the journey to get it made? 

We didn’t find much resistance because of the overlapping of a lesbian story with an Orthodox background. I would say that was more of a challenge for me, to take that world that a Western spectator might have a natural resistance to and make it appealing, sensual and relatable. [I wanted to] make the spectator feel invited in this world. The struggle between a collective resistance against individual freedom or different forms of love is one of the main subjects of [many] films. In this case, it adopts its form with the lesbian story and the triangular story — and in the background, the social context. That’s how the eternal subject manifests itself.

During your research into the Orthodox Jewish community in London, were you struck by any particular nuances that informed how you portrayed the environment and characters?

It became a personal obsession for the team to get the cultural references right. That was really hard because no one knows anything about [that community] unless you are part of it. We had consultants during the writing process and then several more during production. We would ask them questions all the time, except on Fridays. That was our way into the intricacies of daily life in the community.

Alessandro Nivola’s character Dovid had a remarkable ability to emotionally affect every scene, even those he wasn’t in. How did you work with Nivola to realize the character?

Dovid was the hardest character to write — the female characters were so strong because of what they were going through, with Dovid, he is quite different from the novel. We wanted a strong masculine person, but we wanted to keep the delicacy and high intellectual level as well. I’m very proud of Alessandro because it’s not often that you have the opportunity to portray that kind of masculinity onscreen. He’s someone who’s very sensitive, a man of faith, he loves the world of the Torah but at the same time he loves his life. He has a certain level of wisdom and he found the urgency required for him to overcome his own dilemma. For me, it was very interesting to think and to imagine how a man that is not just the antagonist would come out of this situation being deprived but at the same time, grateful.

The film explores boundaries to faith and sexuality, which has led to it raising awareness about the alienating consequences of repression amongst religious communities. As a director, do you consider that your films can be a catalyst for change, and is that a factor when picking projects?

I never really think like that when I’m writing or shooting, because I think that belongs more to the mindset of a politician. Films have that dimension, but for me, a film is a much more complex animal than just the dimension. You have the images and the mise-en-scene; there are so many layers that you have to take care of. But at the same time, of course, I am aware of the social context — though, it comes from a place of emotion. I do some things because I’m moved [by the material] and there was something about this story in particular; it was very intimate and personal, and at the same time very political with its ability to resonate with wider subjects. There is a strong relationship between what society allows in terms of forms of love and the evolution of that in society, so when a group is opposed to a certain thing, there is conflict — and also the possibility of change, perspective or a new order. In that sense, a film can show new light toward certain subjects. A very complete example of that is what happened in Chile. There was a gender identity rule in Congress for five years and then we made A Fantastic Woman and somehow the possibility of the film activated the public discussion to an urgency to have this ruling discussed and approved. A year after that, the film got the Oscar, and then six months after that, the gender identity ruling was approved in Chile for the first time in history. I’m not saying that was solely due to the film, but the film reactivated the discussion. You can only witness that, you cannot plan it as a politician because then you’d be doing something that doesn’t belong to a film.

Have you received any feedback on the film from Orthodox Jews in London — how have they digested the romantic story?

We’ve only received positive feedback so far. I don’t think a lot of Orthodox people will see the film, but from the ones that we know have seen it and given feedback, it has been positive. This is particularly interesting because one of the main concerns was to fall into the trap of making the community the antagonist.

Looking at your filmography, you seem to frequently depict characters who are on a journey to find or preserve their identity. How does the concept of identity personally resonate with you?

I suppose so, according to statistics — you're right. On a personal level, it’s something that has [affected] my life, so I’m interested in the idea that you can shape your own identity up to a certain level and that some people are willing to pay the price to become who they are. That is very compelling to me.

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Lelio's latest film, Gloria Bell, released into theaters Mar. 8.