So when the Jewish actress Rachel Weisz approached him a couple of years ago and suggested he co-write and direct “Disobedience,” a film that depicts how a lesbian relationship affects a close-knit Orthodox Jewish community, he had some trepidation. Actually more than some.
“I was terrified,” Lelio told JTA in a telephone interview from Santiago. “I didn’t know how I was going to deal with ‘Disobedience’ because it takes place in such a specific and often secretive world.”
But Lelio was deeply intrigued by Naomi Alderman’s 2006 novel of the same name. He eventually sought the advice of 10 rabbis and other consultants before writing a script with the acclaimed playwright and screenwriter Rebecca Lenkiewicz, who co-wrote the 2016 foreign film Oscar winner “Ida.”
The result, which hits American theaters on Friday, is a nuanced portrait of lesbian love, religious devotion and what happens when those worlds collide.
In the film, Ronit (played by Weisz) is a photographer and daughter of a rabbi who flees her childhood Orthodox community in London for New York. When the lapsed Jew learns that her father has died, she returns home for his funeral, but not without hesitation. The rav’s congregants had rejected Ronit as the black sheep of the community, and the rabbi himself had disowned her.
When Ronit returns to North London, she is greeted mostly with suspicion — except by her childhood friend, Dovid (Alessandro Nivola), now a rabbi and her late father’s protege. Tensions flare when Dovid’s wife, Esti (Rachel McAdams) – with whom Ronit had a teenage lesbian romance – rekindles their relationship. Their torrid affair has a profound impact on the lives of all three main characters.
The role is a noted departure for McAdams, who often plays lively characters and sex symbols in blockbuster comedies and dramas.
Lelio has made a name for himself through multiple acclaimed films that involve female characters struggling on the margins of society. His 2013 film “Gloria” spotlights a divorcee who feels invisible in her middle age (an upcoming English-language remake will star Julianne Moore). “A Fantastic Woman” revolves around a transgender woman mourning the death of her lover.
“It’s intuitive, but I really connect to the stories of strong female protagonists defying the establishment somehow, and willing to pay the price to be who they really are,” Lelio said. “I like to explore these characters from every possible angle; to go through the emotional spectrum, to see them fall and then stand up again and survive.”
As for why, he said, “I grew up surrounded by strong women, and that was a very strong influence.”
“Disobedience” — Lelio’s first film in English — struck him as a story in which “the contrast between the eternal values of Judaism and the in-flux condition of the characters creates tension.” But he insists the film does not promote disrespect for observant communities.
“I discovered that there is a beauty to this ancestral tradition, and while it is old, it remains so alive,” he said. “I didn’t want the community to be the antagonistic force. … If you watch the film carefully, you’ll see that what’s really stopping each character from moving into the next level is not the community; it is something within themselves.”
Unlike other Hollywood films that portray observant Jews in a more negative light, such as “A Stranger Among Us” and “A Price Above Rubies” from the 1990s, “Disobedience” depicts a more human and detailed portrait of an Orthodox community whose members do not appear as the villains of the film.
The project launched when Weisz optioned the rights to Alderman’s book some years ago — she had warmed to the story featuring two strong female characters. Unlike Lelio, Weisz is no stranger to Judaism: Her Hungarian-Jewish father fled the Nazis in 1938, and her Austrian-born mother, a Catholic, also escaped Hitler and later converted to Judaism. She also grew up close to Golders Green, a London neighborhood with a large Orthodox population.
Nivola, 45, who has appeared in films such as “American Hustle” and “A Most Violent Year,” was raised Catholic but has his own connection to the world depicted in the movie. His paternal grandmother, Ruth Guggenheim, hailed from an observant Jewish family in Frankfurt, Germany, that fled Hitler to Milan, Italy, in the 1930s.
To research his role in “Disobedience,” Nivola read books such as Raymond P. Scheindlin’s “A Short History of the Jewish People” and met with Orthodox residents near his home in Brooklyn as well as in London. They taught him how to pronounce Hebrew blessings and prayers, as well as other nuances of observant life.
Along the way, Nivola also met actor Geza Rohrig, who portrayed a concentration camp sonderkommando in the Oscar-winning foreign language film “Son of Saul” (2015). Nivola produced the upcoming film “To Dust,” which stars Rohrig and Matthew Broderick and revolves around an Orthodox cantor dealing with the untimely death of his wife (it’s premiering at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival).
Lelio said he has not received any complaints from Orthodox viewers about the depiction of his film’s fictional enclave — nor the explicit sex scene between the two female protagonists that has been making headlines for its portrayal of desire from a female perspective. (Weisz thought the original cut of the scene contained “too many orgasms.”)
“The tension between law and desire is at the center of that sequence, which is also what I think the film is about,” the director said. “It was so important that that scene was extremely sensual, extremely physical. Through that, it paradoxically becomes spiritual.”
“Disobedience” opens in theaters on April 27.