“Disobedience”

In his first English language film, Chilean director and writer Sebastian Lelio has widened the world’s view on religion and sexuality and the tension between. From beautiful biblical poetic verses on togetherness to graphic co-mingling of bodily fluids, Leio’s work can open viewers’ hearts and minds to the pain of choice, the strictures of ritual, and the beauty of both.

Much of the story is painful. Like Lelio’s award-winning   “ A Fantastic Woman” ( reviewed Mar. 22, 2018) our protagonist must deal with rejection and derision because of her sexual orientation. Religion plays central to the role  of free will, here. In a beautiful and reverent twist, religion becomes a means of acceptance rather than a means of stricture. This is quite a coup, as is the open ending.

Our setting is an orthodox Jewish community in current London. The estranged daughter of a beloved rabbi returns for his funeral.

The action is slow and character driven. We walk through key fragments of the storyline piecemeal.  There is no false memory here. We learn that the rabbi had happened upon his young daughter and her friend in a lesbian tryst. The community clamps down, and the daughter soon leaves the country. The rabbi encourages the guilt-ridden and depressed partner to marry his rabbinical student.

From this framework, ( based on a novel by Naomi Alderman) the actors take over, and they are incredible. Rachel McAdams plays Esti Kuperman with all the earnest soulful longing of a woman tied to a passionless union with a man she respects and who offers her forgiveness.

Rachel Weisz is the outcast daughter, Ronit Krushka. One of my favorite scenes is where in the airport she  readies herself for her return to her Jewish enclave by taking the neck of her dark sweater in her teeth. She tears enough threads for it to be a garment duly rent. According to custom,  the rending is to vent pent-up anger. This dramatic expression of anguish symbolically exposes the grieving heart. Weisz’s face brilliantly captures her loss.

Alessandro Nivola is Dovid, the husband of Esti and the synagogue’s heir apparent. He is one of the most loving and sympathetic figures I have seen on-screen. Imagine Gregory Peck in “ To Kill A Mockingbird”.

All three characters are complex. Ronit is always gratifying her senses: taking a bite of brownie, smoking a cigarette, stealing a kiss. Sensual pleasures are part of her life. She is surprised by Esti and David’s marriage, hurt that her father’s obituary states that “ sadly, he left no children”. Esti, now a teacher in an orthodox school, is the one who informed Ronit of her father’s death. The rest of the shivah guests are hostile. A Mrs. Goldfarb is actually mean. “ It must be very painful for you not to have received the rabbi’s forgiveness.” The will makes no mention of Ronit, and the community is to have the house. As a famous New York photographer, she is sad that she never took her father’s portrait. Her cold reception does not dampen the fact that she wishes all to know she loved her father.

Dovid must “ keep his house in order”. Congregants make a formal complaint when they see Ronit and Esti together. Rumors fly, and Dovid tries to flush out the emotional truth of Esti and Ronit’s relationship. His anguish on all fronts is raw : “ What are you doing to us?” , “ What is wrong with you?” The three eat a meal together; they pray. The tension is controlled and calm. Then things change. Esti finds herself pregnant and suicidal.

Seven days of Shiva, a passionate sexual scene, and a speech of a lifetime are layered and tender. Freedom to choose is paramount both in this film and in life. Dovid’s , “ I do not have sufficient understanding…” will bring tears to your eyes. “Shalom” has never been spoken more deeply. This complex screenplay by Leilo and Rebecca Lenkiewicz is top-notch as are the three main actors.

One humorous line must be mentioned for an example of much-needed, comic relief. After an afternoon of love-making ,  Ronit tells Esti that she wants to take her picture. “ For the Jewish Messenger” she adds.

“ May you live a long life” is repeated as a blessing over the course of the funeral. It is to remind us that life is short and that we only have one chance to make it matter.

“Southpaw”

Ever since I read Edward Hoagland’s second novel “The Circle Home” in 1965, I have been drawn to boxing as a metaphor for slugging out a life. “Scrappy” might be the adjective that sticks best. In Jake Gyllenhaal’s new movie, “Southpaw” he plays the scrappy kid,who made it out of the orphanage with a partner who stayed by him,even when he was incarcerated. Now married,Billy Hope and Mo (Rachel McAdams) are living the “good life” with pergolas and pools and canopied beds. Their ten-year-old daughter, Leia (Iona Laurence)is protected and cherished.Then fate intervenes as screenwriter Kurt Sutter follows the typical story arc of falling from grace and redeeming oneself.

The dialogue and the storyline are the weakest parts of the film,and the great cinematography can not really save it, even though photography director Mauro Fiore choreographs some stunningly fast montages of gauze wrapped hands, blood-vessel-broken eyes, and neck-snapping punches and upper-cut jabs.

As Light Heavy Weight Champion of the World,Gyllenhaal has worked to look the part. His musculature is completely different from his last highly acclaimed role in “The Nightcrawler”. His neck and abs are impressive. His arm tattoos reading “Fighter” and “Father” set his roles. “Fear No Man” is inked on his back in the same font used in the initial credits.

Billy ends his career ignominiously by hitting a referee. The shot of him naked and alone sitting on a white-tiled,shower floor and crying out,”Anyone still here?” is an example of the dialogue. “I feel like I broke her heart” and ” My wife would have liked you” are other  examples of his simple declarative sentences. But one comes to a “fight movie” to see the sweat spume and the blood fly.  Here  the sound of the strikes and jabs is what you will remember.

The score is by the late James Horner, and the film is dedicated to his memory. Eminem has a new song heard as one of these  famous montages flick on and off the screen. The beat was good,but I could not make out the lyrics.

A social conscience of sorts is attempted with the character of Tic Wills (Forest Whitaker).He becomes Billy’s trainer and come-back manager who organizes charity bouts and teaches young street kids disciplined sport. Billy who has been dubbed “The Great White Dope” tells Wills, “I can handle the rules. I grew up in the system.” It is this same system that Billy wants to keep his daughter out of. But provisional custody is court ordered. Naomi Harris plays Angela Rivera,a social worker who shows professional caring and warmth. Oona Laurence,likewise, is painfully believable with her anger-crossed arms answering the question “Is that your Dad?” with her sad “I don’t know anymore.”

I was basically disappointed in “Southpaw”. Scriptwriting like,”Come on,baby, get off those ropes” leave me punch-drunk and I want to go home. And the boy named “Hoppy” because his mother liked bunnies was as sad as his killing. Sorry, but Clint Eastwood did a better job with his “Million Dollar Baby” in 2004.