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Weisz Beyond Her Years: From Optioned Novel to Arthouse Drama, Rachel Weisz Nurtured Disobedience at Every Stage

Weisz Beyond Her Years: From Optioned Novel to Arthouse Drama, Rachel Weisz Nurtured Disobedience at Every Stage

Producing

Having been raised close to where Disobedience was shot, Weisz’s Jewish heritage made her relatively familiar with Orthodox Judaism, and equipped her with a shorthand not afforded to her co-stars. “I played an English character who is living in New York and that’s me.” But McAdams and Nivola, she says, prepared for a month, “to immerse themselves in the culture and the prayers, go to Friday night dinners, and meet Orthodox people.” The insular community Ronit and Esti inhabit, darkened and dulled by black-clad religious devotees, shines brightest when it glimpses at the tenderness between the two women, who not only desire one another sexually and romantically, but also have a complex shared history as close friends. “There’s no potion you can drink or conversation you can have to make that happen. That’s just chemistry and alchemy. It’s non-manufacturable,” Weisz says. Recalling the film’s achingly erotic hotel-bound love scene, Weisz calls attention to its subtler signifiers: “Ronit just wants to take a picture of Esti. For her, that’s an expression of great intimacy.”

Cultivating a set of warmth and safety where that intimacy could thrive was a goal shared by Weisz, McAdams, and Lelio. At no point was this more crucial than when they prepared to shoot that hotel scene—which has already begun to draw comparisons to the seminal LGBT romance Blue Is the Warmest Color, prompting Lelio to jokingly nickname it “Jew Is the Warmest Color” in several recent interviews. Weisz explains that Lelio storyboarded the scene—in which Ronit softly spits into Esti’s mouth, as Esti swallows it before asking her to do it again, and again—and showed it to McAdams and her weeks prior to the shoot, so they knew exactly how he wanted their movements mapped out. “The spitting—it wasn’t like Rachel or I felt like doing that, unscripted. It was like a choreographed piece of music. We were creating a visual grammar for a kind of abandoned sex,” she says.

Old Flame: In Disobedience, Dovid’s marriage (Alessandro Nivola) is disrupted by the burning desire between wife Esti (McAdams) and Ronit (Weisz). Courtesy of Bleecker Street

Part of the wonder of this unshakably sexy scene, though, is how the lovers’ inner dread about what they’re doing—the transgression they’re committing—is articulated through its shots. “The sex scene wasn’t terrifying to perform,” Weisz says, “but I think the characters were terrified. ‘Oh my God—we’re alone, mapping out our familiarity together.’ It wasn’t a walk in the park, but Sebastian was incredibly elegant. We felt safe.”

Another element of Disobedience’s “visual grammar”: the sheitel—a wig Orthodox women use to cover their hair—is central to how the film codifies freedom. “The sheitel always looks like Ronit’s hair, but it’s not. She wiggles it, and it’s like, ‘That’s a wig, right?’,” Weisz explains. That the head covering is worn by both Ronit and Esti also suggests that the two women exist as mirror images of one another—a motif reminiscent of Ingmar Bergman’s Persona. “Sebastian’s concept is that Ronit and Esti are like two hearts of one person, expressing different sides. I’m the part that left, she’s the part that stayed in the community.” She pauses for a moment, then adds, “But really, the two are one person. I was really interested in the mirror idea.”

Ronit and Esti’s dissent from their community in exchange for personal freedom doesn’t come violently, but rather, as Weisz describes it, “lyrical and gently. They lead a certain quiet revolution. We’re telling a story about how Esti is a woman who can’t live in the way that she wants to in the world that she has been chosen to live in.” Still, however culturally specific Disobedience may be, Weisz remains insistent on its universality: “Anyone from any religious background, or any woman, or LGBT person, can relate to it. We’re all looking for our agency in life.”

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