If you’ve already seen Avengers: Infinity War for the fifth time, there’s another offering out this weekend from Bleecker Street. Disobedience stars Rachel Weisz, Rachel McAdams and Alessandro Nivola. It’s a world away from the MCU and it’s a unique gem. Ronit (Weisz) returns to her Jewish Orthodox community years after fleeing it in her youth. She’s reunited with Esti (McAdams) and Dovid (Nivola), her former childhood friends who are now married to each other.
Esti and Ronit are each other’s first loves and they’re now reunited. Lelio gives us a story rarely seen, taking us into the hidden Orthodox community and a beautiful story about female desire, forbidden love and sexual identity. Disobedience is a striking film and Weisz’s Ronit is thoroughly absorbing. I caught up with Weisz about taking on the role and playing an empowered woman.
How did you first find the book and what was it that spoke to you that said, “This is what I need to do?”
Over ten years ago, some producers came to me and asked if I wanted to start a production company. They asked what stories I wanted to tell, but the honest answer was that I just didn’t know and had no idea. Something happened in that interim where I’d lived long enough to know what kind of stories I wanted to tell. I definitely wanted to tell a story where the women’s subjectivity was front and center. I thought, “Wouldn’t it be great if it were a woman in relation to another woman?” I thought that it could be about friendship or sexual love. I started to read a lot of books and I actually started reading a lot of lesbian literature. I didn’t analyze why, but I thought a woman in relation to a woman is really interesting. I’ve done so many films where it’s a woman in relationship to a man.
There was something about this one. The other ones I’d read were great and set in the 1950s but this one was set now and down the road from where I grew up and but in a community that I had no access to and are deeply private, and where being gay is completely taboo. I think stories where someone has to struggle to be free are really interesting.
What detail did you have about the community?
Naomi Alderman who wrote the book grew up in that community and left to live in New York. She’s sort of Ronit in a way, but she isn’t. All the detail of the community was written by someone who grew up there. It was really Alessandro and Rachel McAdams who had to do the research because they were part of the community. I didn’t have to as I had cut it off like an extra limb. My character had abandoned it. It was right that I wasn’t comfy when I went back there.
Talk about tapping into Ronit’s space and who she is.
She’s different to the book as she has a different job to the book. She’s someone who had been exiled from her home for loving a woman and had gone to start a new life in another country and reinvented herself. She’s tied up in being free and being a rebel and doing what she wants when she wants.
I think her life looks good, but I do feel something is missing. She never gets to see her father again but she has to go back and make peace with her home. That just seemed like a very strong story to me.
I thought that final scene was simply beautiful and the way it was done. It was so powerful.
Talk about working with Sebastian. He’s created these great roles with Gloria and A Fantastic Woman.
I’d seen Gloria but I hadn’t yet seen A Fantastic Woman. When I ask him about it, he tells me he’s not Gloria. He’s not these women, but he says, “I’m interested in becoming them and finding out about them.” I think he’s interested in stories where the characters wouldn’t normally be front and center. They’d be more “a type” on the edge of the story like Marina, or the 58-year-old woman looking for love. It’s unusual for that to be the center of the story. He puts things that are normally on the margins of stories in the middle.
Of course, for a 58-year-old woman, she is front and center, but they’re not often represented in stories that way. I don’t know what makes him like that, I’m happy he is like that. He’s a straight man from Latin America, a very macho culture, but I’ve never put him on the couch and found out what made him like that. He’s just deeply empathic and curious about human existence and genuinely in and by women in their strength, complexities and their contradictions.
I also loved how he shot the sex scene, leaving it to the imagination, and I read he had storyboarded it.
Two weeks before that was happening he sat us down and there were pictures. He just wanted to show us.there were no surprises on the day. There was no improv. The only improv was we had to fill up the emotion dance steps with. He showed us pictures and there was always one woman’s face in the frame and one woman just outside the frame and he showed that the frame was above the breast, the pubic hair or the bottom. He wasn’t interested in showing the body, so the audience had to imagine where the other woman is outside the frame and that’s really erotic I think. Often times, I think with actresses and sex scenes, you go, “Ugh, is this scene necessary?” With this, it absolutely is. It is the heart and the soul, it’s the beating heart and the center of the film. It was so important. I think we were both vulnerable and scared and trepidatious, but it was a very emotional day. It’s unusual for sex on film, I’ve never experienced something on film where it’s so emotional like that.
You talked about reading some books. Did anything stand out in general for you?
There’s some great lesbian pulp fiction from the 1950s called The Beebo Chronicles. There’s just something so different about women loving women, it’s just different. It’s a completely different gaze and emotion. For me, it’s different. I’ve been in many films about heterosexual relationships, but this was something else. It’s a different human experience which I feel hasn’t been represented as much and I’m really curious to keep exploring.
That ending. I don’t want to spoil it, but do you think Esti gets what she needs in the end?
The ending is different from the book. Sebastian wanted the ending to be that these three people have found some freedom. Dovid, in that he says, “I’m not wise enough to take this role as a rabbi and I’m going to give my wife her freedom.” In that moment, he becomes the most deeply spiritual man I’ve ever witnessed. What could be more spiritual and beautiful than that actual sacrifice? He finds freedom. What’s going to happen in his life? You don’t know. Esti asks for her freedom, she’s granted it and she’s going to stay in contact with the father but just not be part of the community. Ronit has gone back, reconnected with her home and her first love and doesn’t have to run anymore. She’s not going to be running. What’s she going to do? Is Esti going to live with her? We just don’t know. It’s the opposite of a Hollywood ending where you get closure and you know exactly what’s going to happen. There’s a mystery and I think that mirrors what it is to be human. A lot happens to them that they find their own agency.
You’re a producer on this and you’re taking the helm. Are you going to be doing more of that?
Yes, I know what I’m interested in and I’m developing five or more films right now that are at all different stages, but I’m really enjoying that process of finding material and working with writers. I love writers, they’re my favorite people. It’s such a great journey and uses a different part of your brain from acting.
At what point did Naomi Alderman get involved?
When it was finished. She was really gracious. She said, “You’re making your version. It’s a film.” She was fine with the changes and didn’t expect. She was happy for us to take it away and make it ours. She saw it with her family who are still part of the family and they really liked it. She understood that film is a very different medium and she wanted a meditation on what she had written. She’s so happy with it.
Disobedience is on general release