Religion and love have always had a complicated relationship, especially when that love extends outside of the heteronormative concept of a man and a woman. How religious communities comprehend this in regards to their faith is a constant question, one that every community is having to face as the world around them moves forward toward equality. Adapting Naomi Alderman’s novel ‘Disobedience’ with co-writer Rebecca Lenkiewicz, acclaimed Chilean director Sebastián Lelio has found a way to meditate on this question in a film of emotional and thematic richness.
Photographer Ronit Krushka (Rachel Weisz) returns to the orthodox Jewish community she was born into in London when her father, a beloved Rabbi in the community, passes away suddenly. After decades of self-imposed exile, she finds herself facing not just the loss of an estranged parent, but her past, specifically her now-married childhood friends Esti (Rachel McAdam) and Dovid (Alessandro Nivola), and the intense romance she and Esti shared as teenagers, a romance that quickly threatens to reignite.
Making his English-language debut, the Oscar-winning Lelio seems an initially unlikely match for this material after the magic of ‘A Fantastic Woman’ and ‘Gloria’, but even though ‘Disobedience’ never quite strikes the same chord as his previous work, his mystical touch and keen rigour with female protagonists turn the potentially overwrought drama into something quite special. Memory hangs in the air like a shimmering mist as Ronit explores the ghosts of her past, preserved in a community steadfast in its traditions and customs. Lelio understands the richness of this experience for not just Ronit, but for Esti and Dovid as well, and the gentle playfulness that has become his trademark quality as a director makes the exploration of their inner dreams, fears and desires a journey of discovery rather than danger.
This recent renaissance in queer cinema has offered us the opportunity to explore sexuality and gender in specific communities and cultures, and here, ‘Disobedience’ offers us a view of that within Orthodox Judaism. Ronit’s unencumbered femininity and sexual energy are at odds with the patriarchal power dynamic of her community, and while they in general tolerate or reject that energy, it unlocks the desires in Esti for what it is she truly wants. The extreme intelligence of ‘Disobedience’ is that it doesn’t frame Judaism as a antagonistic force working against Ronit and Esti being together, but to a certain degree, celebrates it. The film is far more concerned with using their romance to ask even deeper questions about freedom and choice within a strict religious construct. Esti is committed to her faith and embraces it in her life, and what prevents her from following her heart and her attraction to other women is not just the disapproval but the potential loss of her faith and community. By not peddling in black-and-white moral certainties, ‘Disobedience’ becomes a far richer film, one that celebrates tradition and faith while questioning it.
Ronit and Esti’s romance is the heart of the film, and Lelio’s approach is one of integrity and honesty. The extraordinary chemistry between these women - both the actors and the characters themselves - leaps off the screen, which only amplifies the intense emotional impact of the film. Their union seems right and just because the film itself is fashioned to make it so, and their moments of physical intimacy are an intense celebration of the pleasures of sharing your body with another, of being skin-to-skin, of taste and smell and sensation. These women burst with hunger and need for one another, a contrast with their restrained surroundings that the film revels in.
By not peddling in black-and-white moral certainties, ‘Disobedience’ becomes a far richer film, one that celebrates tradition and faith while questioning it.
Sexuality though is only part of what ‘Disobedience’ concerns itself with. So much of the film, and what binds Ronit, Esti and Dovid’s stories together is less about betrayal or passion, but our duty to our parents, our partners, our community and our faith. Both Esti and Dovid rage with internal storms, with a building need to change in order to survive, and Ronit tumbles with the guilt of the lost parent relationship she can never get back. All three central performances are excellent, Weisz and Nivola doing some of their best work in years, but Rachel McAdams is extraordinary, a performance of deep longing and deep fear, detailed and intimate and enormously affecting.
Lelio has always excelled at diving into the inner world of his characters, of exposing their contradictions and fantasies, and while he does so beautifully in ‘Disobedience’, the film stumbles by never quite cracking those inner worlds as deeply as it constantly threatens to. Perhaps it’s the ghost of his previous work, but you leave wishing for a touch more magic.
‘Disobedience’ is as rich in theme as its title is rich in meaning. Its meditations on faith, love, duty, community, grief, regret, responsibility, passion, truth and choice are all woven together into a beautiful character study, an emotional portrait of two people seeking solace in one another. Sebastián Lelio has stepped from his Chilean roots into his first English-language work with everything that makes him special intact, and has once again led already tremendous female actors to do extraordinary work. ‘Disobedience’ is a deeply moving film that leaves a welcome and delicate memory afterwards.