Considered one of the foremost filmmakers of post-dictatorship Chilean cinema, Sebastián Lelio (much like his contemporaries Pablo Larraín, Andrés Wood, and Sebastian Silva) has been making some of the most fascinating movies of the past decades, many of which focus on characters who don’t often stand at the center of contemporary films.
In the case of his previous film, the Academy Award-winning Best Foreign Language work A Fantastic Woman, Lelio centered on a transgender woman named Marina. His latest movie, Disobedience, centers on the lives of an Orthodox Jewish community in London, marking Lelio’s first English-language film, starring Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams as old friend who reunite as very different women in a particularly difficult time for Weisz.
Lelio made name for himself in Chile with the 2005 breakthrough The Sacred Family, but became best known for his 2013 portrait of an “older woman” in Gloria, starring the legendary Paulina García. In fact, Lelio recently shot an American remake of Gloria, this time with Julianne Moore in the title role, which may see release before the end of the year (for those counting, yes, that’s three movies in one year).
Much like his Chilean counterparts, Lelio moving into English-language productions gives him the opportunity to work with actors he’s admired from afar. I last spoke with the filmmaker a couple of months ago—between the Oscar nomination announcements and A Fantastic Woman’s win. But this time around, we focused entirely on Disobedience and the Gloria remake. Please enjoy this spirited conversation with Sebastián Lelio…
What is the the appeal of shedding light on a community that doesn’t often have films made about it or cameras brought into it?
Sebastián Lelio: Anything that is forbidden and that I can take a look through the curtain is too tempting. I was very interested in trying to understand where this woman, Esti [McAdams’ character], lives, what’s around her, as well as her husband Dovid [played by Alessandro Nivola]—the two other points in the triangle with Ronit [Weisz]. What is great about it is that it’s a completely created world. It’s a community that has tradition, that has been sophisticated through thousands of years. They dress in a certain way, they have a set of moral rules, they worship a god. It’s like science fiction, like going to an unknown planet, with the difference being that it’s real. It’s a secretive real world that almost no one knows much about, not even Londoners know much about what goes on in that area.
I’ve seen other films about Orthodox Jewish communities, primarily in New York. I’ve never seen one about them in London, and of course it makes sense that there would be a community like that there. I assume that’s where the book is set as well.
Yes, because Naomi Alderman, the writer of the book, grew up in that community. And she wrote her way out of it with the book. They are not trying to bring anyone in. It’s a very rare opportunity to have the chance to take a look at what’s going on in there and how they live and their ceremonies, houses. I felt privileged in that sense.
It’s my understanding that Rachel Weisz is the one who found this book and eventually brought you in. For you, when you read the novel, what were some of the things about it that drew you in and allowed you to see the possibilities of this story?
It happened before, when the producer Frida Torresblanco, who’s partnered with Rachel, met with me in 2014. I was reading a lot of scripts back them. It was the first time I’d had access to such material.
I was going to ask if you were looking for English-language scripts at the time.
I wasn’t looking, but I was being offered them. Of course, I got interested in the idea, but I hadn’t found anything that really moved me until I had that conversation. She pitched the story, and I loved it, how it sounded and the dynamics among the characters and this strange triangular love story of confused, vibrating human beings, operating in front of a backdrop of very solid, more or less fixed ideas of the world. So that contradiction seemed very attractive. Then the fact that Rachel Weisz was going to play Ronit was a big part of the equation.
So then I read the book, and I was like “Yes,” even though the world is so alien and unknown to me—I’m not British, I’m not Jewish, English is not my native language—it seemed somehow familiar. Maybe because I grew up in a very Catholic country, even though I’m not Catholic, which was heavy in Chile during the dictatorship. I’m not saying that this world is like a dictatorship at all, but there was something that felt I could understand, some of the dynamics that were going on here.
When the film starts, you deliberately want us to think there has been something in the past between Ronit and Dovid, but of course we find out later what’s really going on. But there is a tension among all three of them. There’s even a tension between the husband and wife that wasn’t there until Ronit comes back. That had to be fun to play with and have that dynamic where everyone is on edge.
Structurally, the film has three narrative paths. We start with Ronit, who is a modern woman we can relate to, and she takes us by the hand and brings us to this mysterious world. It’s like time travel, like somewhere in a different era, time space.
When she first enters her late father’s home for the first time in years, she noticed that everything is exactly where it was before.
Exactly. It’s all the same. And the rituals and the clothes are all the same. Nothing has changed much. Then after she arrives, we also observe Rachel McAdams and Alessandro Nivola as individuals. It becomes a triple narrative. They mingle, the co-exist—sometimes it’s the three of them together, sometimes it’s Ronit and Esti. In that sense, I’m playing with information and the absence of information was very tempting and interesting because I really tried to keep the spectator in an active mode, so that they’re forced to fill in the blanks.
The one parallel I noticed between this film and A Fantastic Woman is that both films are about women searching for a moment alone to mourn a loss. And neither are given that time because they are thrown into these situations—in the last film is was because of a criminal investigation; here it’s Ronit getting thrown into discussions of her father’s will and the hostility toward her from the community she left. But neither is given that little bit of time to absorb the loss completely, and I think that makes people angry.
It’s such a human need. If you don’t have a proper process of mourning, you aren’t able to close the cycle, to process everything. It’s paradoxical because in Jewish culture, they have great mourning rituals to make them feel that that person is gone, so you can really incorporate it and be conscious about it. But since there was no direct family except for Ronit, there was no one that could sit shiva. So she arrives to this shiva-like situation, but it’s not exactly what should have been happening because it should have been for her. And it’s her fault for that, that she’s not properly mourning.
We do wonder through a great deal of the film if Ronit left willingly or whether she was pushed out. It might be a little bit of both. But you delay the specifics of what happened, was it 15 years earlier?
[laughs] I never use a fixed number of years, but it’s somewhere around that.
Another piece of information you keep vague, to keep the audience engaged.
Of course, because you’re intrigued and you’re guessing and you’re participating. It’s all about expectations and surprising the spectator with different solutions. Sometimes a mistake can confirm their suspicions; sometimes they can be very surprised by new information. Storytelling is all about giving and taking away.
Not to underplay this but, this is also a very sexy film. When you have a story that about a deep-seated religious group and you introduce sex into it, it feels all the more forbidden and charged. You’re not supposed to even talk about it, let alone show it.
I know. I was attracted to that precisely because sex can be spiritual. And maybe that’s what’s subversive about that love scene, in the context of the film, because it’s surprisingly spiritual. They are deeply connected to who they are, and somehow the human voice, which has been used with such solemnity by others to express the truth that comes in the scriptures, here has a very different use. It’s moaning. You’re hearing those voices being used for something else, for pleasure. It has a liberated power, so those tensions and dynamics are fascinating.
I saw an interview with Rachel from the Toronto Film Festival in which she said she didn’t think anyone else could have directed this movie. And if I’m not mistaken, she was basing that belief off the strength of Gloria. There was something about your voice in that movie that appealed to her, and I’m wondering if she ever told you why she felt that way.
That was the film that made her and the producers think that I could be the right person. Maybe it’s the way of portraying women, maybe a certain capacity to create the illusion that you’re watching people and not characters, which is an artifice of course. But they seem to be real. I love working with actors and trying to grasp something with the camera that is the intersection between the character and the actor, and that makes me care even more about the person that is interpreting the character. In this case, I really care about who Rachel Weisz is, what is being carried in her body, her backstory, her eyes. I’m trying to use that as the claw with which the feelings are built.
Talk about working with Rebecca Lenkiewicz [who also co-wrote the Oscar-winning 2013 film Ida] on the screenplay. Did you write a version before she was brought in?
I did. I wrote three drafts, and then Rebecca came on board, and I loved working with her. She’s a great playwright and script writer, and she’s British. She brought a great musicality and texture to the dialogue and her understanding of British culture. I just loved her. It was a great collaboration.
In the midst of this affair, you really do feel for Dovid. He’s in the middle of this thing that he has no control over. Alessandro is one of the great chameleon actor working; there are movies he’s in that you don’t even realize he’s in because he disappears so completely into every role. And in this situation, we do have to have a certain amount of compassion for his character.
The three of them are facing their own dilemmas. His is not light; he’s going through a lot and in a very short period of time. Dovid was one of the hardest characters to write; it was difficult to make him a real counterweight to these very strong women. I always thought he needed to be, at the same time, spiritual and with testosterone—that strange combination that sometimes exists.
It was amazing to see him transform and become an Orthodox Jew. He started in New York, with some consultants in Brooklyn. He was sending me pictures with the hats, the suit, and slowly the beard was growing, he became obsessed. He got the accent perfect. When he arrived in London, some Orthodox Jews thought that he was one of them coming from New York. I was impressed; he really went for it. I’m particularly proud about the end, near the climax, where his character becomes so central. That speech that he gives at the end…he’s the second heart of the film—the first is the love scene and the other is that speech. His voice, presence and characters are essential.
And we like him right from the beginning because he’s the most embracive toward Ronit when she returns home.
It would have been easy to make the community the villain or make Dovid the jealous guy. But we wanted to create a good man, which is something rare in a film. I was attracted to the idea of, why not portray a man who is a good person? And when confronted with this situation, what will he do?
I want to ask about this new version of Gloria…
The cover version [laughs].
It’s only a cover if it’s a different band. This one is the same band. Is it strange going back to that material? Do you get to fix things?
Yes. It’s like, I love Bach, and this is like the Goldberg variations, if you want. It was great to have the chance to revisit my own materials and work with Julianne Moore and John Turturro and to find a new vehicle to whatever was universal in that story, to try to bring it back to life.
Will we see it open before the end of the year?
We will know very soon, but probably yes.
Best of luck with this. Thanks for talking.
Great speaking with you again. Thank you.