The Chilean director Sebastián Lelio’s rule-defying female leads and leitmotifs (defiance, forbidden love, and obstructed mourning) are so consistent that his last three films, Gloria, A Fantastic Woman—awarded this year’s Oscar for Best Foreign Film—and Disobedience, could count as a trilogy on a woman’s quest for respect, ardor, and erotic freedom. His spirited, front-and-center heroines are, by circumstance and necessity, fierce renegades—women who refuse, in the face of everyday roadblocks and adversarial forces, a paint-by-numbers approach to life.
Lelio’s life-force women aren’t outsize exactly (they’re too spun-around and vulnerable) but readily suggest life lived at a brave, truth-telling pitch. Lelio draws full-bodied performances from his stars (the Chilean actress, Paulina Garcia; Chilean trans actress and lyric singer, Daniela Vega; British actress Rachel Weisz; and Canadian Rachel McAdams)—marvelous performers who enrich his movies so seamlessly it’s hard to imagine his female-centric films without their all-systems-go devotion and indispensable collaboration. Lelio’s 2014 international hit, Gloria, won the Berlin Festival Best Actress prize for Paulina Garcia (who, in a tour de force, was careworn, occasionally mousy, or remarkably radiant at will), and he’s now helming an American version with Julianne Moore—a dream match for the role of a still-vibrant, fifty-something divorcee.
In Lelio’s stirring new film, Disobedience, Rachel Weisz’s Ronit Krushka, with her lustrous dark hair (amid the compulsory wigs of the Orthodox Jewish wives and daughters) is as beguiling as a figure in a Renaissance painting; she’s too contemporary and expressive to be the Mona Lisa or the Dark Lady of Shakespeare’s sonnets, yet an air of sensuality and lingering mystery surrounds this New York–based photographer as she returns, at her rabbi father’s sudden death, to the strict British Jewish community in which she was raised. Lelio isn’t the least bit interested in breaking down Ronit’s somewhat spiky history or rebellious nature in timeworn, typically reductive (and often scolding) movie fashion, and in a real way, Ronit is as baffling a creature to her rabbi father’s reverent followers as the trans singer-waitress Marina is to the predictably hostile or pandering folks who trouble her path in A Fantastic Woman.
Ronit isn’t an especially tricky role for Weisz, but it’s a role uniquely suited to her, and the Oscar-winning actress anchors her character in an alert, open-hearted and sanguine way. As the prodigal daughter who has come home to sit Shiva, she struggles with deep-seated grief, a barrage of snap judgments, and cool reticence from her abandoned community—only to feel the pull of a put-aside, once trouble-making love.
Casting a respectful but questioning eye on this tight-knit Jewish community, Lelio skirts overt melodrama and facile emotion in favor of a more evenhanded meditation on passion, repression, and imposed religious values. In conveying this realm of strict spiritual allegiance and orthodoxy, Lelio and his cinematographer, Danny Cohen, employ a somber palette of Whistler colors (cloak-black, beige, pearl-gray, and pewter), a gliding, vigilant, at times handheld camera, and a subtle, percolating score to suggest something stirring beneath the painful hush and regimen of mourning.
Lelio takes a prismatic approach to Ronit’s exile and wary return, and very gradually we discover that the poised, gracefully modulated Esti (who’s now married to Dovid Kuperman, the young rabbi raised alongside Ronit and groomed from adolescence to be the dead rabbi’s successor) is still slyly, desperately in love with Ronit: in the past, their teenage same-sex attraction scandalized the rabbi and community, leading to the rebel photographer’s dramatic flight.
Esti’s clandestine summoning of Ronit and her cracked-open emotional arc comprise the wild card and revelation of the movie. We see how expertly Esti Kuperman performs as a dutiful wife and esteemed teacher in her faith-fueled, heavily monitored world, but underneath is the desire and pain of a lovelorn, stifled lesbian. Rachel McAdams has been a stalwart, appealing actress for quite a while, and in the sensually and romantically reawakened Esti, she has found her most distinctive role to date. The conflicted, multifaceted Esti is fascinating, and the ecstatic sex scene between her and Ronit has as much verve, beauty, and daring as any scene in the lesbian cause célèbre Blue is the Warmest Color.
As the warm-natured and honor-driven rabbi, Dovid, Alessandro Nivola gives a discerning and deeply human performance. His great freedom-giving scene, rich with religious deferral and change of heart, is as potent and mesmerizing as Reverend Dimmesdale’s confession in The Scarlet Letter.
Disobedience highlights one of the most complex, emotional love triangles in recent films; Ronit, Esti, and Dovid have known each other since adolescence and, despite Ronit’s long exile (or defection), the abiding love between them runs soul-deep. In the final reel, the trio’s hard-won integrity, their threefold embrace—a triumph of truth over too-rigid tradition—is both inspiriting and profoundly moving.
A Fantastic Woman is the most poetic and assured of Lelio’s films, with arresting imagery, evocative music, and telltale incidents. It’s graced with agile, surreal flourishes—Marina, a merengue and lyric singer, walking against an all-at-once gale-force blast or observing her distorted self in a wobbling mirror hauled by glaziers—moments that reflect a battery of emotions and allow us to empathize, to feel our way into Marina’s grim emergency as the transgender lover of a solicitous, doting older man, who suddenly dies and inadvertently leaves her in the lurch.
In some ways, it’s a classic lady-in-distress film, a guaranteed roller-coaster ride that also features elements of a crime drama, as Marina’s handling of Orlando’s aneurysm and sudden death becomes the subject of a hostile investigation. We see from the messy, chaotic actual event that Marina is blameless, even exemplary and resourceful, but straightaway she becomes an object of unrelenting suspicion and harsh, trans-phobic projection, as Marina’s loving relationship is unimaginable to the police, medical staff, and to the majority of Orlando’s family members. Orlando’s beautiful but vicious ex-wife calls the poised and caring Marina “a chimera,” and practically hisses, “When I look at you, I don’t know what I’m seeing.” It’s clear from Disobedience and A Fantastic Woman, this on-tap contempt, this commonplace incomprehension, is one of Lelio’s key themes: the eternal struggle between outsiders and the fortresses of traditional family and religion. Both the marginal Ronit and Marina, for instance, are callously written out of wills, obituaries, and official family versions: a newspaper claims Ronit’s father, the venerable Torah scholar, died “childless.”
In examining his out-of-the-mainstream heroines’ lives, Lelio allows room for our speculation and wonder about who these charismatic women are and how they’ve learned to cope. Occasionally Marina is seen lobbing some serious punches at a punching bag; we don’t know whether she gravitates to boxing to protect herself as a vulnerable trans woman, or whether this is a “masculine” holdover from her life as Daniel.
A world-weary female detective provides a mirror to the nonstop specter of violence, abuse, and even murder perpetrated against trans women. She suspects Marina may have been battered by her dead lover and demands a complete physical to prove Marina’s innocence—disputed due to hard-to-account-for bruises on Orlando’s body (incurred from an accidental fall down some stairs). This leads to a tense, highly charged scene for Vega—especially given its clinical, voyeuristic gaze on the trans body.
A Fantastic Woman offers in-demand testimony in the battle against policed or enforced gender that has erupted via conservative bathroom bans. Its most reactionary characters insist that Marina use her “real name,” her male birth name—part of the reflexive “outing,” the at-the-ready humiliation that awaits any trans person who dares detection in public.
Daniela Vega’s hard-to-ruffle calm, her rootedness and admirable pluck are the perfect foil for trans-phobia. Lelio finds probity and strength in Marina that pushes her character beyond stereotypical ideas about trans women. By the time Marina sings Handel’s famous “Ombra Mai Fui” (fittingly, a common aria for funerals), she’s fully earned her diva status: her resilience and fortitude, her dauntless refusal to cloak her transgender spark or soft-pedal her immense grief, like a valiant modern Antigone, is astonishing.
Cyrus Cassells, a poet and professor of English at Texas State University, lives in Austin.