If you chemically formulated the concept of middlebrow art, transported it to a lab and then attempted to discover what the very mid point of the middlebrow looked like, Sebastián Lelio’s unedifying sixth feature, Disobedience, would turn up in the test tube. It’s a hackneyed tale of forbidden love amid North London’s orthodox Jewish community, and it methodically tells you exactly what you’re supposed to feel, who you’re supposed to admire and who you’re supposed to despise with a grimly methodical rigour.
As with his previous film, 2017’s A Fantastic Woman, Lelio seems convinced that those who don’t harbour a progressive worldview are evil incarnate, and so we are shown a raft of devoutly religious folk who think nothing of oppressing those acolytes who refuse to toe their deeply conservative line.
Rachel Weisz’s Ronit is a worldly photographer, displaced from London to New York, who returns home on the occasion of her estranged father’s funeral. At the wake, she bumps into her old pal Esti (Rachel McAdams) who is married (clearly against her will) to affable Rabbi Dovid (Alessandro Nivola). It’s not long before the reason for Ronit’s exile is revealed. The film takes the simple calculation of focusing on a social sect, zeroing in on a primitive attitude, and then proceeding to explain why that attitude is wrong.
The actors invest as much as they can in the thin material, yet it all comes together in a way that’s neither challenging nor particularly insightful. Suspense is repeatedly built around people randomly wandering in on illicit romantic bunk-ups (guys, not on the public tennis courts!) and there’s a ridiculously over-ramped love scene which suggests that beneath every bashful, buttoned-down prig is a sleazy sex monster just waiting to emerge.
It’s not that Lelio’s aim isn’t true, it’s more that he appears to believe that empathy should not be extended to the ignorant. And it ruins his films.