A woman returns to her Orthodox Jewish community that shunned her for her attraction to a female childhood friend. Once back, their passions reignite as they explore the boundaries of faith and sexuality.
Sebastian Lelio’s English-language drama Disobedience is a quiet affair set in the north London’s Orthodox Jewish community. Ronit (Rachel Weisz) is a liberal photographer who returns to London following the death of her rabbi father, having spent years living a bohemian lifestyle in New York, after being shunned from her community for her feelings towards another woman. An only child raised by her dad, he was all the family she had left, and yet she ran away for a more secular life across the pond. The film lures us into thinking it will be about the guilt Ronit feels about abandoning her family, but it actually has other interests in mind.
Upon her return to London’s Jewish Orthodox community, Ronit realises the neighbourhood hasn’t changed much since her childhood, although she has in her leather skirts and chain-smoking habit. The only substantial difference is that her old friend Dovid (Alessandro Nivola), a protégée of her rabbi father, has since married Rachel’s ex-girlfriend Eti (Rachel McAdams). Needless to say, this creates a thick atmosphere between Dovid and Ronit, with a thousand emotions passing between them without a word being said. Their buried feelings broil beneath the surface as Romit deals with her father’s passing, together with the Jewish community’s cold shoulders.
McAdams is devastating as a wife trying to measure what she’d lose if she escaped the community she was born into. Nivola also does wonders with his man-in-the-middle role, fleshing it out and making it more dimensional than one might expect.
Lelio, fresh from his ‘Best Foreign Language Film’ Oscar win for A Fantastic Woman (2017), doesn’t let words define actions. The love scenes are perhaps overly erotic and unrealistic, a large contrast from the bottled up narrative. Disobedience works much better when the director lets McAdams and Weisz play their feelings out through soft glances and subtle touches. The plot gives itself away too soon, however, leaving the third act feeling empty and unfulfilling. There’s no exposition and very little context, because in small communities like this none would ever be needed. This lesbian drama, at its core, isn’t a romantic fantasy but a real world drama where emotions, no matter how real, have consequences… and honesty comes at a price.
Many will consider Disobedience too slow and unfulfilling. It’s not filled with surprises, but it was never intended to be an action-packed thriller. The latter part of the movie fails to match the heat and intensity of what preceded it, the ending is far too measured (lacking the emotional punches expected), while the sombre colour palette and chilly atmosphere doesn’t help distract you from the treacle slow pacing.
Disobedience wanders past feeling repressed and into outright cold and emotionless, only saved by the excellent performances of its three leads. And perhaps the wonderful orchestral score by British composer Matt Herbert (A Fantastic Woman), which is only interrupted by The Cure.
The film unfortunately doesn’t explores the structure of religion and the struggles many believers suffer within its grasp. Disobedience avoids deeper consequences of being gay in ab Orthodox Jewish community, and instead plays on the repressed sexuality between a bohemian escapee and an imprisoned wallflower. There’s actually no reason for this story to take place in a Jewish community in London; it could have been any country, any community, any religion.
director: Sebastián Lelio.
writers: Sebastián Lelio & Rebecca Lenkiewicz (based on the novel by Naomi Alderman).
starring: Rachel Weisz, Rachel McAdams & Alessandro Nivola.