A woman returns home to a tight-knit religious community that once shunned her for her attraction to a childhood friend. Once they’re reunited, the two friends begin to explore the romantic feelings that arise.
I’d heard whispers carried by the winds of the Internet that Rachel Wiesz’s performance in this film would probably bring her another Oscar nomination (she won an Oscar in 2006 for The Constant Gardener). Intrigued, I thought I’d check it out- but I did my best to avoid trailers or reading any further into the plot. I thought this film was about religious oppression of a LBGTQ relationship, and while the subject matter isn’t something that particularly piques my interest, I’m always down for seeing a well-reviewed film. I was nervous, however, that religion in general would be cast in a bad light, and I wasn’t too particularly thrilled about that. But, to my happy surprise, this film did not delve too deeply into the oppression of the strict religious community. Yes, the repression of homosexuality is something that this film deals with, but it does not make religion the bad guy, rather, it shows how religion greatly helps some of the woman in this community and represses a few of the others. Showing both sides of the spectrum was not something I thought I’d see in today’s market, and that was actually, surprisingly, refreshing.
(SOME SPOILERS IN THE FOLLOWING PARAGRAPH)
The film opens on a Rabi giving a sermon. He talks about the different creatures God made: angels, the beasts, and man. He speaks about how man is the only creation that possesses free will; how man’s life can become twisted. The Rabi collapses, and we learn a short time later that he’s died. Cut to Ronit (Rachel Weisz, The Constant Gardener, Constantine), a photographer living in New York; she’s informed of the Rabi’s death. She’s distraught, and after a bender, she gets on a plane to London. Upon arrival, Ronit goes to a home where the Rabi’s death is being mourned. She receives a lukewarm welcome; she feels awkward and asks if she should leave, but Dovid (Alessandro Nivola, Face/Off, American Hustle) and his wife, Esti (Rachel McAdams, Spotlight, Sherlock Holmes), both of whom were close childhood friends of Ronit, offer their home as a place to stay. Ronit accepts, but soon it becomes apparent that Esti and Ronit have a history that nigh everyone in the town knows about. As the two spend more time together, their old feelings are reignited, putting Dovid and Esti’s place in their community at risk.
There were some parts of this movie that went beyond brilliant and other parts that were a little shaky. The direction, acting, and writing all suffered from some uneven moments, but overall the film was enjoyable and worth watching (though it is slow).
Some of the scenes that revolved around the tensions between Esti and Dovid contained the best acting I’d seen from Rachel McAdams. Rachel Weisz lived up to the Internet rumors I’d heard- I wouldn’t be surprised if her name gets brought up near Oscar season (though I don’t think she’ll win- Charlize Theron, at least right now, is the one to beat, in my opinion). The most surprising performance actually came from Alessandro Nivola, who played Dovid. I’m pretty unfamiliar with his work, other than the waaaaaay over the top Face/Off. In my opinion, his character was better written than either of the two leads- he showed more depth, more confliction, and more change than anyone else in the film. Alessandro has been around for years, and looking through his filmography, I was surprised to find I’d seen a decent amount of the movies he’s in, but I never really noticed him. In this film, he stole quite a few scenes. My biggest issue was that I didn’t feel the Rachels had that great of chemistry. One or two scenes had me convinced, but for the most part their love felt a little cold and distant. I know that this love is supposed to be repressed and forbidden, but doesn’t that sort of limitation usually inspire more passion? I never really felt what I believe the director wanted me to feel.
The directing in this film is a little uneven. There were a few scenes where the blocking felt strange and stilted. I think particularly of the scene when Ronit comes back to Dovid and Esti’s home; the scene is supposed to feel uncomfortable, but the way it’s blocked makes us loose track of a few characters (a couple walks into the room, talks with Ronit, and then suddenly vanishes). However, the craft with which the director creates other scenes is incredible. There is a recurring theme of glass separating the characters from the camera, wigs become a prominent symbol, and another with Dovid covering up matches or lighters for Esti and Ronit. The symbolism behind all of these things points to repression, or hiding something you don’t want found out. It’s well crafted and the film looks great. The cinematography in this movie is really great; stark and flat, without much saturation. Sometimes the flat look doesn’t really work well, but in this film it worked to its advantage. There are only a few moments when warm colors really bleed into the frame, and most of the time that’s when Esti and Ronit are together.
(SOME SPOILERS IN THIS PARAGRAPH) The ending of this film, I believe, is what sets it a notch above other films. This film really gives depth to Dovid’s character, and his reaction to Esti and Ronit’s love affair is something I would not have expected. Dovid is essentially forgiving of what happened between Ronit and Esti; he loves both of them and he wants them to be happy. In the dramatic climax, he tells Esti to choose what she likes in front of the whole congregation- but he doesn’t draw attention to her- he does it subtly. The way this film wraps up subverts the viewer’s expectations as well. No one is really satisfied with anything; there is no clear path the characters will take after the credits roll. I actually really enjoyed the ending- I thought it said a lot about the relationship between religions, romantic relationships, and tradition. (SPOILERS END)
This isn’t a film I’d recommend to a ton of people. It’s a well-made movie, but it’s hard to go about suggesting a stark LBGTQ drama about religious repression. It’s not a fun subject matter, and the film isn’t as fantastic as it could be. I feel like this movie has a pretty niche audience: arthouse film fanatics and geriatrics. I saw this in a theatre where there were only other occupants were two (very chatty and seemingly bored) elderly folk, and I was honestly surprised they stayed through whole thing (particularly after the rather graphic sex scene in the middle). This isn’t going to be a big movie- it’ll be forgotten in a few years- but it’s a movie that, if you are a fan of slow burn dramas, religious examinations, or character studies, you might like. It’s not great, but it’s pretty darn good, and Rachel Weisz and Alessandro Nivola both give some of the better performances I’ve seen thus far this year.
I should mention that Sebastian Lelio also directed last years Best Foreign Language Film, A Fantastic Woman. I have yet to see that, but I'll post a review when I get around to it.
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