The Jewish Chronicle - - FRONT PAGE - JAMES MOTTRAM

SOME­TIMES, THE out­sider’s view­point can il­lu­mi­nate far brighter. Take Chilean-Ar­gen­tinean film­maker Se­bastián Le­lio, whose new film Disobe­di­ence opens in cin­e­mas this week. Based on the 2006 novel by Naomi Al­der­man, and set in the north-west Lon­don Ortho­dox Jewish com­mu­nity, it would seem to be a pos­si­bly im­pen­e­tra­ble world for a di­rec­tor who had never made an English­language movie before.

“It was a lot to learn,” he ac­knowl­edges. “It was like vis­it­ing a dif­fer­ent planet. But fas­ci­nat­ing — I learnt a lot and I learned to ap­pre­ci­ate it a lot as well.” When he first started, he was paral­ysed with fear “be­cause of my ig­no­rance of this com­mu­nity.” Catholic-raised, he calls him­self the ul­ti­mate for­eigner: he’s nei­ther Bri­tish, nor Jewish and English is not his na­tive lan­guage (although he speaks it well, when we meet in a Lon­don pri­vate mem­bers’ club).

Now 44, his re­cent years have been spent liv­ing in Ber­lin, after mov­ing from San­ti­ago at the time of his fourth film — and in­ter­na­tional break­through — 2013’s Glo­ria, the story of a free-spir­ited mid­dleaged woman who loves to dance in night­clubs. It was this that at­tracted ac­tress Rachel Weisz. “Some­how she saw Glo­ria, and then for some rea­son, she in­vited me adapt this book [Disobe­di­ence]. And I loved the story and the idea of work­ing with her, of course.”

Weisz had op­tioned Al­der­man’s novel, through her pro­duc­tion company LC6 Pro­duc­tions. She’d grown up not far from Hen­don, where Le­lio shot Disobe­di­ence, and wanted to make it her first film as pro­ducer. In the in­terim, Le­lio made 2017’s A Fan­tas­tic Woman, the story of a trans­gen­der woman in Chile whose life is turned up­side down when her boyfriend dies sud­denly. The film won the Os­car this year for Best For­eign Lan­guage Film, turn­ing Le­lio into a hot prop­erty.

Cu­ri­ously, he took on Disobe­di­ence with the same an­thro­po­log­i­cal ap­proach that he took to­wards the trans­gen­der com­mu­nity for A Fan­tas­tic Woman. “It’s ex­actly the same, in a way,” he rea­sons. “My in­ter­est is com­ing from a hu­man place. It’s not be­cause Ortho­doxy is my world or the trans­gen­der cause is my cause. But what con­nects me with them is that I am a hu­man be­ing and I’m sure there are hu­man be­ings in those places as well. So I’m try­ing to find what we have in com­mon.”

Ini­tially, he adapted the book alone then worked with co-writer Rebecca Lenkiewicz, the Bri­tish play­wright (Her Naked Skin) who lives close to the neigh­bour­hood and be­came “es­sen­tial” in the process. He brought in a team of con­sul­tants in­clud­ing Al­der­man, whose fam­ily are Ortho­dox, and whose fa­ther Ge­of­frey was a JC colum­nist for many years.

The story tells of a woman named Ronit (played by Weisz), the daugh­ter of a re­spected rabbi who has fled the Ortho­dox com­mu­nity to restart her life in New York as a pho­tog­ra­pher.

When she learns of her fa­ther’s death, she re­turns to mourn, de­spite be­ing dis­owned by him and re­jected by oth­ers in the com­mu­nity. There she re­unites with child­hood friend Dovid (Alessan­dro Nivola), her late fa­ther’s pro­tégé and now a rabbi, who has mar­ried Esti (Rachel McA­dams).

The con­tro­versy sur­round­ing Al­der­man’s book comes with the rev­e­la­tion that Ronit and Esti had a teenage love af­fair, feel­ings that are rekin­dled when Ronit re­turns to Lon­don. Al­der­man has said that peo­ple would come up to her and tell her she shouldn’t write about a les­bian af­fair, that such things don’t go on in the com­mu­nity and if they do, they should only be talked about with other Ortho­dox Jews. “There is ap­par­ently one do­geared copy be­ing passed around the Jewish com­mu­nity of Hen­don,” she said.

De­spite this, Le­lio says that Al­der­man was the “bridge” for the project be­cause there is a big part of the com­mu­nity that re­spects her and her work. He re­calls that the au­thor told him that some­one had been to see a lo­cal rabbi and men­tioned the film. “We won’t stop them from do­ing it, so we bet­ter help them so they can get it right,” came the en­light­ened re­ply.

Were peo­ple wel­com­ing to him into the com­mu­nity? “Most of them,” he says, cau­tiously. While Le­lio was ini­tially baf­fled by the “so­phis­ti­cated” tra­di­tions and rit­u­als of what is of­ten seen from the out­side as a very close-knit and closed-off com­mu­nity, he made it his busi­ness to un­der­stand ev­ery­thing he could. “You want the tex­ture to be right,” he says.

He at­tended cer­e­monies and Shab­bat din­ners, and spent a week in an Ortho­dox ho­tel dur­ing the writ­ing process. Dur­ing the shoot, he had up to twelve con­sul­tants on the set at any one time.

Be­yond this, he had oth­ers in the crew who un­der­stood, to some degree, this world. He hired Danny Co­hen as his cin­e­matog­ra­pher. Co­hen, who shot such Os­car­win­ning films as The Dan­ish Girl and Les Misérables, was an­other on the film — like Weisz — who grew up not far from the set­ting of the story. He’d at­tended a lo­cal syn­a­gogue a few times in his youth and would fre­quently re­call his child­hood mem­o­ries to Le­lio “and the aus­ter­ity of this com­mu­nity”.

After Glo­ria, A Fan­tas­tic Woman and Disobe­di­ence, Le­lio is carv­ing him­self out a niche for telling fe­male-driven tales. “Clearly, I’m at­tracted to [th­ese sto­ries]. But to be hon­est, it has been rel­a­tively fast as a process. At some point… I think it was in Toronto after Diso--

be­di­ence was shown [at the film fes­ti­val in 2017], some­one asked me about the trilogy of women! I was like, ‘What?’ Con­nect­ing the dots, you can think in those terms. I was not. I’d been blindly fol­low­ing an in­tu­ition!”

His pre­ced­ing film, 2011’s The Year of the Tiger, was about a prison in­mate who es­capes after an earthquake wrecks his pen­i­ten­tiary, which hardly sug­gests he only makes films about women. But does he see any gen­uine con­nec­tions be­tween this un­of­fi­cial “trilogy”? “They are dif­fer­ent, be­cause they are very dif­fer­ent char­ac­ters, but what they have in com­mon that they are women on the fringes of so­ci­ety. The ges­ture of the films is to take them into the ab­so­lute cen­tre and to ded­i­cate to them a film.”

In the case of Disobe­di­ence, of course, it deals with a woman on the fringes of her own world. “Yes, if you think of Rachel Weisz’s char­ac­ter,” he nods, in agree­ment. “But then Rachel McA­dams’ char­ac­ter, it is in a cer­tain way a char­ac­ter that is si­lenced by so­ci­ety.” In many ways, it’s a story of loss for two women. “One is the re­pressed one, who stayed and lost con­tact with who she re­ally is. The other is the one that ran away and lost her ori­gins.”

Le­lio also calls the story an ex­am­i­na­tion of “the eter­nal ten­sion be­tween duty and de­sire”, and it’s this that pro­vides the emo­tional grist in the film, as Esti is torn be­tween her feel­ings for Ronit and her sense that she must obey not only her hus­band, Dovid, but the com­mu­nity at large. Nev­er­the­less, it was vi­tal not to de­monise the Ortho­dox com­mu­nity — not to im­ply that they’re “throw­ing stones at the les­bians”.

The film fea­tures an in­tense sex scene — a cru­cial part to the story — that may shock some. Not least be­cause it’s rare to see two A-list ac­tresses in­dulge in such a cou­pling on screen. “We had to avoid mak­ing it generic,” says Le­lio, who was all too aware that sex on screen can be re­duced to the cam­era glid­ing over bod­ies to the sound of soft moan­ing. At the end of the day, Weisz cracked open a bot­tle of whisky. It was prob­a­bly needed.

What about shoot­ing a first film in English? “I was a bit con­cerned about that but I re­alised that mak­ing the film is mak­ing the film,” he says. “The type of prob­lems that you’re deal­ing with are ex­actly the same. It’s a cam­era and ac­tors and then ei­ther it works or it doesn’t. You have a cer­tain amount of time to make them work. I felt in that sense at home. I’m very grate­ful to have done my first English ex­pe­ri­ence here, in Lon­don.”

Since mak­ing Disobe­di­ence, Le­lio has shot a sec­ond movie in English — a re­make of his own film Glo­ria, star­ring Ju­lianne Moore. Re-ti­tled Glo­ria Bell, Le­lio re­calls that it took the same “stub­born­ness” that was re­quired when he made the Span­ish-lan­guage orig­i­nal. Back then, ev­ery­one told him: “Who will want to see that? A film about a lady who goes out to dance, that’s not a film.” “In this case,” he grins, “who does his own re­make?”

Well, ac­tu­ally Aus­tria’s Michael Haneke did ex­actly that with his home in­va­sion story Funny Games. But it’s typ­i­cal of Le­lio’s brav­ery (and stub­born­ness) to take on a vir­tual shot-for-shot re­make, a project that re­port­edly came to him after Moore ap­proached him. “Why not? It’s like mu­si­cians — they get to play their songs many, many times and change them and adapt them. I took it as a cover!”

Disobe­di­ence opens on Novem­ber 30

lt was like vis­it­ing an­other planet


Se­bastián Le­lio


Rachel Weisz (above) and be­low, with Rachel McA­dams

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