PFF Springfest 2018: Disobedience and Won’t You Be My Neighbor

This weekend was the Philadelphia Film Festival Springfest. The weekend seeks to highlight hits from the winter festivals like Sundance, making the most buzzed about independent films available to celebrate before they hit theaters this summer.

Disobedience (Dir. Sebastion Lelio)

What do we do with the tangled lives we lead? How do we navigate through the burdens of free will, when it seems so much easier to put our heads down and do what we are supposed to do? Is a sort of disobedience written into the very fabric of our relationship with God, despite our collective aversion to it? These are the main questions asked by Rabbi Rav Kruschka (Anton Lesser), before he collapses and dies suddenly in the midst of this passionate sermon. It is as if he was  struck down by an angry God for even bringing up the issue. There are great costs to pay for disobeying your creator, but perhaps even greater ones for blindly obeying. Enter the Rabbi’s daughter, Ronit (Rachel Weisz), estranged from this tight knit Orthodox community in London, who returns home after years away to mourn.

Ronit, arriving to sit Shiva, immediately finds herself face to face with cousin Dovid (Alessandro Nivola) and his wife Esti (Rachel McAdams)- the three have a history together that is slow to be revealed, backstory doled out in small bits, mostly through their actions in the present.

I struggle with how much to reveal about the plot in this review- as so many synopses I have read share points and threads that aren’t revealed until the second half of the film. I wondered watching it, what it would be like if I didn’t know what was going to happen, or why there was this tension between Ronit and Esti, why Ronit hadn’t spoken to her father in years, or why so many of Ronit’s relatives and friends greet her with a cold distance. So I won’t say anything more about it- the slow burning long play, and witnessing the puzzle pieces coming together is one of the true pleasures of the film.

In events of death, when greeting a loved one, there is an Orthodox tradition of wishing someone “a long life,” as many say to Ronit. But within this wish, though benevolent it may seem, there is nothing about the quality of the life. What is a long life if you grin and bear it, disconnected from your wants and desires? In Disobedience, religion is a beautiful tradition that brings people together- but is also the ultimate excuse for not probing deeper into the difficult questions of life. If you chalk up everything to what God demands, then you are not really living for yourself and don’t have to make your own decisions. In a way, there’s an incredible freedom in this- the film sees religion as much as a crutch as it is a tool of self expression. Dovid wonders aloud, in a climactic scene, why Rav Kruschka brought up the question of free will in his final sermon- it is as if we spend our whole lives in fear of making the wrong choice, only to discover at the end that we were free to make any choice all along.

Disobedience is a straight forward film in many ways, a script that is put onscreen simply but brought to life by the three central performances. Ronit, Dovid and Esti get distinct, full character arcs, and Lelio (A Fantastic Woman, Gloria) brings his empathetic Chilean realism to every frame in his English language debut.  I also love nothing more than when a movie puts a different spin on a pop song you have heard millions of times- bringing out the ambiguous shades of longing and sadness that were always there, but you stop hearing after a while. Disobedience does this in one incredible scene, which I also don’t want to spoil for you. E-mail me so we can talk about it.

Disobedience is out in limited screenings in New York and Los Angeles, and will open soon in Philadelphia.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (Dir. Morgan Neville)

There seems to have been a renewed interest in the career of Mr. Rogers lately, the one of a kind Public Television personality, and icon of many childhoods. Perhaps it is the fact that PBS funding has been under fire in the Trump administration- or that a biopic starring Tom Hanks is in development- or simply because times are dire, and it sure would be nice to have someone like Mr. Rogers around to guide us through.

Regardless, director Morgan Neville (20 Feet From Stardom), brings us a short and sweet documentary about his life that is as touching as it is timely. In recent years I had always heard rumors that Rogers was a Navy veteran who wore those long sweaters to conceal full sleeves of tattoos- and his real offscreen personality was that of a hard living, foul-mouthed, no bullshit kind of ruffian. This rumor is addressed in the movie, as I realized that I was one of many who simply had a hard time accepting that there could be a human as genuine and sincere as Mr. Rogers. The film unpacks his legend, reducing him to that of a simple man with simple goals- goals that escalated and far exceeded what anyone thought was possible with a simple Public Access Television show.

What makes the film successful is the loads of archival footage used- not simply reruns of the famous show Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, but backstage footage as well. For those of us who casually watched the show here and there, it appropriately sums up the experience for us, in case we don’t have thousands of hours of free time to play catch up. There is also a thread of animation that runs through, with a drawn version of his beloved puppet/alter ego Daniel the striped tiger- facing challenges and conflicts similar to ones that Rogers faced in his own life.

In the end, it’s not a film that seeks to put Rogers under a microscope, psychoanalyze him, or explain exactly why he was the way he was. It is more a celebration of a remarkable American life, the people he loved and who loved him, and the institution he fought so hard to protect. Tears will flow, so bring your handkerchief.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor opens June 8th, 2018.

Author: Andy Elijah

I am a musician and music therapist who loves movies too. Raised in Maryland, I have been proud to call Philadelphia home for five years. Sounds can be heard at Baker Man and Drew. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd

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