“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.

“A Fantastic Woman”

The Best Foreign Film winner of 2017 has three beautiful scenes and terrific acting. “ A Fantastic Woman” also has some missteps. For much of the film our protagonist is shouldering grief against the wind of prejudice. One of the best frames shows this by having Marina ( beautifully portrayed by Daniela Vega) drop her head and bend into the wind in order to keep up-right. It is a beautiful metaphor visually wrought. I dubbed it “the wind walk”. While the film draws sympathy and addresses the concept and definition of  normality, it also overdoes transgender disco stroblight scenes. And the sound track of “ You make me feel like a natural woman” seems ironically funny more than romantic.

”Una Mujer Fantastica” is directed by Sebastian Leilo. It is a Chilean film that has haunting visuals and teems with the glow of life. We begin with images of the South America wonder of the world, the Iguazu Falls. Legend has it that a beautiful woman fled with her lover here and the gods punished the lovers with an eternal fall. The fall here is down a series of apartment steps that leave bruises and contusions on Marina’s lover, Orlando. Enough physical evidence that a doctor calls the police since he suspects foul play. The subsequent police station examination of Marina by the sexual offense unit is hard to watch. Grief is denied and criminal intent is seen as truth.

Cultural touchstones are as apparent as the prejudice. Orlando ex-wife Sonia tells Marina, “When I look at you I don’t know what I am seeing~a chimera.” She forbids her from attending Orlando’s funeral service. She wants to protect her seven -year-old daughter and herself from embarrassing questions. Orlando’s son shares in Sonia’s perversion cries. He threatens with, “If you steal anything, I’ll know.” Everywhere the love Marina and Orlando shared is made tawdry and debased. When Marina is assaulted by Orlando’s son and his  buddies, we are shocked by the violence. As a counter weight we are given St. Francis’s “make me an instrument of your peace, a channel for your love” while Marina’s voice teacher, his sister as his brother-in-law offer Marina a respite.

Walking is what Marina does throughout the film. The walk through the spa from male to female section is haunting and symbolically touching. The one item of masculinity-that clunky gold  watch bothered me, as did the show of rage when Marina drove for a car’s windshield and then stomped on its roof. I wanted her dignity to remain long-suffering and noble. Like one character said, “being with you is complicated-like quantum physics”, yet this film does its best to keep it simply about love.