FORBIDDEN LOVE IN HENDON
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
Rachel Weisz (above) and below, with Rachel McAdams