Sunday, June 24, 2018


In a London synagogue Rav Krushka delivers a lesson on the concept of choice. He tells the congregation that alone among the angels, the beasts and humans, humans have the capacity to disobey. His voice falters, his respiratory system fails and he collapses.

His only child, prodigal daughter Ronit, is in New York, shooting with a Hassleblad, taking portraits of a man whose torso is covered in tattoos, Diane Arbus style. She is interrupted with the news of her fathers death. She takes to the town, goes to a bar, has some distraction sex with a man whose face we (and maybe even she) doesn't see, and then, exhausted in a changing room, tears her top and reveals a challah necklace.

Still, as Jewish as that action and decoration suggest, her reappearance in her former community is tolerated rather than welcomed. Her father's obituary omits any mention of her as does his will. As she talks to Dovid, an old childhood friend, now a rabbi, in his kitchen as the mourners fill the rest of the house we get a hint as to why this is so. Dovid's wife appears and there is an instant and connection between the two women. Ronit is invited by the couple to stay with them while in London but while no one is happy about it no one can deny her the right to mourn her father. And no one forgets. That's the problem with open secrets, you can't erase them and you can't talk about them.

What is on the surface a romantic triangle melodrama keeps a steady eye on the opening lesson about choice. Shooting style is seldom other than soberly informative and the sobering pallet of London in winter dominates. If something is to break it will need to do so in secret. Ronit remembers this but her life in New York has allowed her to happily abandon it. Her childhood love Esti is not so free, removing her sheital and disrobing with a blank face before submitting to the conjugal ritual on Friday. She has never not been lesbian and the choice she made in childhood to realise it is brought to profound disturbance by Ronit.

Rachel Weisz as Ronit and Rachel McAdams as Esti play the taboo space for its every sharp sparking charge, letting the eroticism of a simple kiss transfer like a current through the lens. And then, when the tremendous release of their sex scene breaks director Sebastian Lelio breaks it into more manageable snippets for the most part and even keeps the pair partially clothed throughout. The thrilling abandon is clear but it is still confined to secrecy, to the very kind of arcana that their managerial end of their religious community demands of its members. Outside of that gasping freedom the two, once the line is breached, communicate in a small cosmos of tiny indications of affection and outright love that only they and the very observant would recognise.

One such from the last group is Esti's husband Dovid who must deal with what he fears might be inevitable. His position as the inevitable successor to the Rav will place him at one of the apex points of his community. If his wife leaves him for the perceived usurper the reconstruction toll will be ruinous. Alessandro Nivola plays him as a contained explosion, plausibly negotiating with the threats at the gates with a rationalism that might also pass for wisdom or at the very least patience. We know that when this breaks it will deafen. It does. A speech he delivers in the last act has him in close up, playing the fixed focus like a jazz soloist, giving us a perfect sense of panic and the nausea of knowing that the worst is actually happening before him.

This is Lelio's first English language film. He has plunged himself into a particular milieu but is careful not to do so as an invader nor to make those of us beyond its bounds voyeuristic. I had to look up the sheitel and the challah as they are offered in the film without remark. We only really need to know that the religious and cultural realm where the story lives might seem strict but also offers the freedom of disobedience in the title and the opening monologue. We need no special training to see the thickly rugged up clothing of anyone who ventures outside to know what its opposite is. And when Esti is alone in a rented room and the score is swelling towards atonality that what she is doing is serious. Lelio's approach gives us that overcoat and scarf to warm us but also to bind us. If I say that this felt like a festival film I mean it in celebration.

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