Disobedience: Sebastián Lelio on his north London Jewish drama

Oscar-winning Chilean director Sebastián Lelio (A Fantastic Woman) tells us about uprooting to north London for his latest film, in which Rachel Weisz stars as a photographer going back to her Jewish roots.

15 November 2018

By Joseph Walsh

Disobedience (2017)

Fresh off the back of his Oscar win for A Fantastic Woman, Chilean-Argentinian director Sebastián Lelio is back to round off the year with the release of his latest film, Disobedience.

A Fantastic Woman was the emotionally raw tale of a transgender nightclub singer whose life is thrown into freefall following the death of her older boyfriend. Disobedience operates in a more restrained key, but is no less powerful for it.

It’s based on a novel by Naomi Alderman, which Lelio has eloquently crafted into a slow-burning drama, with two captivating performances from Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams.

Sebastián Lelio

Disobedience plunges audiences into the world of a north London orthodox Jewish community. We’re in the company of Ronit (Weisz), who fled the community many years ago in favour of a more liberal life and career as a photographer in New York. When her father, and patriarch of the community, Rav Krushka (Anton Lesser) dies, Ronit has to return home, where she is reunited with childhood friend Esti (McAdams) and her father’s successor, Dovid (Alessandro Nivola).

Although she has a privileged status as the daughter of a rabbi, past disgraces still haunt Ronit, and the community gives her an icy reception. They fear that her return will drag up events they feel are best left alone.

In his last three films, including 2013’s Gloria, Lelio has made a name for himself focusing on the kind of women whose stories are rarely explored in cinema. These recent films, along with his first lower-budget features and shorts, are now the subject of a focus at BFI Southbank.

Speaking on the phone from Argentina, Lelio is both honoured and surprised that his work is already being explored in a retrospective. “I feel like I’m too young for a retrospective,” he says. But, he admits, he is excited to “connect the dots” between what he sees as three important stages of his career: his early short films, then what he calls his “smaller films” (the experiences of which he says were his “second film school”, comprising The Sacred Family, 2005; Christmas, 2009; and The Year of the Tiger, 2011), and then his breakthrough trio.

While his work is now strongly associated with an exploration of the interior lives of women, he is eager to stress there was never a political plan, or preconceived route. In fact, he had never thought of his previous three films as connected until he started seeing journalists and critics writing about his work in these terms.

Disobedience (2017)

“There was something about taking a character who often wouldn’t be the subject or focus of a mainstream narrative and placing her at the centre – it’s exciting,” he explains. “It is almost like taking secondary characters from other films. While there is a human approach, it is also a very political act.” He adds: “In terms of narrative [it is about] what you are saying, and from what point of view, and how the narrative that you are creating is contributing or not to a cultural conversation.”

“When you alter the way you look at things it creates an opportunity for change,” he continues. “It is about creating characters that the audience didn’t know they had a connection with. Viewers might have no interest in stories about older women, or a transgender woman, or a Jewish woman. But if you create a character they can connect with, then their reality can change.”

While Disobedience may be thematically of a piece with Gloria and A Fantastic Woman, there were new challenges for Lelio: the film would be his English-language debut and centre on a community he was unfamiliar with. What grounding did he have for tackling Alderman’s novel?

“I thought that I could work with this material because I felt this connection with the characters and the story,” he says. “It was this place that I operated from, from a human level. The characters were my entry point into this world.”

Lelio shows no signs of slowing down with his filmmaking. This year’s Toronto Film Festival saw the debut of his next film, an English-language remake of Gloria starring Julianne Moore and John Turturro, titled Gloria Bell. He’s a director whose work is always a cause for excitement – in the space of a few years, he’s quickly become one of the brightest and boldest of Chilean filmmakers working today.

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