He’s such a quiet, low-key presence that you could be forgiven if you didn’t recognize that Sebastián Lelio currently has the film world by the tail. He celebrated his 44th birthday last month by collecting the best foreign film Oscar for his excellent melodrama “A Fantastic Woman”; his first English-language film, “Disobedience,” about a forbidden romance in England’s ultra-Orthodox community, centers on mega-watt stars Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams and opens April 27; and his English-language remake of his 2013 hit “Gloria” recently completed filming with Julianne Moore in the lead.
His preternatural calm and essential modesty are betrayed only by the sparkle of his blue-gray eyes. The Chilean filmmaker, who divides his time between Santiago and Berlin, is too interested in his filmmaking craft and art to be focused on the richly deserved attention coming his way after a mere dozen years in the director’s chair and only seven feature films. He knows that fortune has smiled on him, and it feels good, but that’s not where his principal interests lie.
Besides, he knows from experience how transitory the sunshine can be. Lelio had a nomadic childhood, shuttled around Chile by his divorced mother, landing on one occasion in the U.S.
“We were always moving from one city to the next,” he says, leaning back in a chair in a small conference room in a downtown hotel not far from where “Disobedience” will play in the Tribeca Film Festival prior to its theatrical opening. “We never spent more than two or three years in one place. I learned at an early age to be socially effective while practicing disappearing. I was always making new friends, then losing them.”
Consequently, he grew up with an outsider’s perspective, one that has been highly useful in his career. Many of his films are concerned with marginalized figures like the 50-something heroines of both versions of “Gloria,” looking for love in societies that only value youth; the transgender protagonist of “A Fantastic Woman”; and the alienated Orthodox woman played by Weisz in “Disobedience,” drawn back to London for her rabbi father’s funeral and the past attachments that have haunted her since adolescence.
“I grew up in a very Catholic country, under the military dictatorship,” Lelio explains. “It’s so very far away from the Orthodox Jewish community of North London. But I was fascinated by the idea of characters operating in the tension, the friction of duty versus desire.”
In short, the chasidic world depicted in the new film, drawn from Naomi Alderman’s well-received novel, wasn’t as different from his own experience as he had thought.
“I’m not Jewish, I’m not a woman, I’m not from North London,” he says with a sheepish little grin. “But I responded to the idea [found in the book’s depiction of chasidic belief] that everything is in flux, that the Word, the holy texts, can only be rendered depending on your level of consciousness. That thought became central to the whole film.”
The film, like the book, centers on a trio of close-knit friends. Ronit Kruschka (Weisz), who plies her trade as a New York City-based photographer under the deracinated name Ronni Curtis, has been away from London, the Orthodox religious authorities and her family for over a decade. In her absence, her best friend Esti (McAdams) has married Rav Kruschka’s main protégé, Dovid (Alessandro Nivola), her dearest friend from childhood. Ronit’s discomfort with the community is obviously reciprocated by many of the elders, but Esti and Dovid seem guardedly happy to see her once more. Then the secrets of the past begin to emerge with stressful consequences.
It quickly becomes apparent that the trigger for Ronit’s abrupt departure from the family and community was her attraction to Esti, an attraction that was reciprocated and that has not receded despite the passage of time. (When that passion is consummated in the film, the result is both exhilarating and moving.) The inevitable repercussions can hardly be surprising.
“Every human society has its lights and its shadows,” Lelio says. “That’s the reality of existence. It’s very important for [the audience] to understand that the antagonistic forces are not coming from community. To a certain degree, of course, that is an element. But the real antagonisms are within each character. Each of the three lead characters are at an evolutionary crossroads, trying to find the tools to get into the next level [of personal growth].”
The clue to reaching that next level is hidden in plain sight by Lelio and co-screenwriter Rebecca Lenkiewicz (well-known for her script for the Shoah-themed “Ida”). It is overwhelmingly present in the drash that the Rav is delivering at the outset of the film when he is struck down by an apparent heart attack, precipitating the events that make up the remainder of the story.
That homily, drawn from one of the sacred texts that provide the epigraphs at the beginning of each of the novel’s chapters, has the force of a fable; it is both elemental and cosmological, delineating God’s vision of humanity’s place in the universe. At the creation, the elderly rabbi says, God created three classes of being: the angels, who are incapable of disobedience; the animals, who are incapable of resisting the purely instinctual; and human beings who, alone, are given free will. With free will comes the ability to choose, and to reject the implied imperative to obey. Although Rav Kruschka dies before saying it explicitly, the implication is clear: disobedience is part of the Divine Plan and should be treated more respectfully than it usually is.
The most successful element of the film, besides the unerring but understated work of its cast, starting with the trio of leading characters, is Lelio’s attention to detail; it gives “Disobedience” the texture and rhythms of daily life.
That quality of observation has been at the heart of all of his films, particularly the loose trilogy of films driven by female outsiders like Gloria, Marina (“A Fantastic Woman”) and Ronit. Viewers can see why these powerful women are both drawn to and yet must escape from the constraints of the societies they inhabit. It is no accident that within moments of leaving the theater in which “Disobedience” is playing, one feels an intense longing to return to the fictionalized North London in which the film takes place, to a community that feels like a cocoon, but which could also become a shroud.
Perhaps that is why Lelio finds his greatest comfort on the set of whatever film he is directing at a given moment. As he readily acknowledges, for a man who grew up with no real home — or too many homes — the supposedly make-believe world of cinema is home enough.
“Disobedience” opens Friday, April 27 at the Angelika Film Center, Lincoln Square/AMC Loews 13 and Cinemas 1, 2 and 3.