Depicting the problems that can arise when deeply held spiritual beliefs clash with notions of personal freedom, Disobedience is the story of a forbidden love given a second chance. Based on Naomi Alderman
's 2006 novel, written for the screen by Sebastián Lelio
and Rebecca Lenkiewicz
, and directed by Lelio, the film covers some of the same thematic territory as Lelio's previous features; Gloria (2013)
deals with a 58-year-old divorcée trying to re-enter the dating scene by frequenting singles-bars, and Una Mujer Fantástica (2017)
looks at a transgender waitress trying to come to terms with the death of her boyfriend, whilst also navigating a prejudiced society. In Disobedience, Lelio turns his attention towards a lesbian relationship within London's relatively insular Modern Orthodox Jewish community. What all three films have in common is the centrality of a complex and strong woman facing up to (almost exclusively patriarchal) societal hostility. Kind of like a cross between Carol (2015)
and Apostasy (2017)
, Disobedience eschews melodrama, and is uninterested in presenting a binary story where faith is the Big Bad. Although it is certainly critical of the strictures that can result from a rigid application of Halacha (Jewish religious laws), the community itself is depicted respectfully, with the most representative Jewish character arguably the most sympathetic figure in the film. Although things can be far too on the nose from time to time, Lelio's non-intrusive direction more than compensates for that, and overall, this is a fine film, both thought-provoking and moving.
The film opens with Rav Kruschka (Anton Lesser
) abruptly dying in the midst of a service. In New York, his estranged daughter Ronit (Rachel Weisz
) gets a call informing her of his death, and she returns home, heading to the house of Dovid (a superb Alessandro Nivola
), her childhood friend, and Kruska's protégé. Although the community isn't especially happy to see her back, Dovid offers her a spare room. She accepts and is stunned to learn he is married to Esti (Rachel McAdams
), another childhood friend. Over the next few days as the community prepare for Krushka's levaya (funeral), it becomes clear that Ronit and Esti were once more than friends, and the more time they spend in one another's company, the more their suppressed feelings come to the surface.
Thematically, Disobedience is far more concerned with the clash of views that results from Ronit's return than it is with condemning the beliefs of the community per se. When she first arrives at Dovid's house, she instinctively reaches out to hug him, forgetting about negiah (the forbidding of physical contact between men and women not related by blood, or married), and he immediately, although not unkindly, recoils. Later, there is an exceptionally awkward (but very funny) Shabbat meal, where Ronit seems to take great delight in being as outrageous as possible, riling up the assembled guests with her progressive worldview. This kind of ideological conflict, however, is also found within the characters themselves. Esti, for example, is torn between her desire for Ronit on the one hand, and her commitment to Dovid on the other. For her part, Ronit too internalises discord; although she has been estranged from him for many years, she is genuinely hurt to learn just how completely Krushka had divorced himself of her memory, seen most clearly when his obituary refers to him as "sadly childless".
Tellingly, during the Shabbat dinner, Dovid tries to play peacekeeper, whilst a couple of cutaways to Esti show her smiling to herself as Ronit burrows under the skin of those present. This kind of delicate touch on Lelio's part can be seen throughout the film, with numerous wordless gestures allowing the actors to convey backstory in lieu of exposition. For example, after Ronit arrives, although Dovid recoils when she tries to hug him, and although when she tries to light up a cigarette in his kitchen, he asks her to smoke in the garden, he accompanies her outside, shielding the flame from the wind in a gesture both kind and intimate.
On paper, the story might lend itself to a condemnation of the kind of social suffocation and emotional repression that can result from fundamentalism. Instead, however, the film spends time building a respectful, if not idealised, picture of the community's beliefs and practices. A key part of this respect is Dovid himself, an inherently decent and honourable man. In a less nuanced film, Dovid would be a fire-and-brimstone obstacle to Ronit and Esti's happiness, a Roger Chillingworth-type. Instead he is presented as someone who, like Esti, faces a difficult choice - that between his communal position and his faith on the one hand, and his genuine love of Esti and affection for Ronit on the other; his lifelong devotion to the Tanakh conflicting with modern day sensibilities. Indeed, perhaps Dovid's most salient characteristic is internal conflict. This is manifested aesthetically in a scene where he is addressing the synagogue. Lelio films the scene in such a tight close-up, that every time Nivola moves even slightly off his mark, he goes out of focus. It's a brilliant example of content generating form, and is typical of Lelio's directorial lightness of touch.
However, for all that, the film never lets you forget that this is a community of negiah, where married women must wear a sheitel wig in public, and where the genders are strictly divided at religious services. As Ronit and Esti discuss their sexuality, Esti points out that she and Dovid have sex every Friday night, "as is expected", and that the reason she was married to Dovid in the first place was that Krushka hoped "marriage would cure" her, a concept not far from homosexual conversion therapy. In this sense, although respectful of the community, the film does challenge some of the tenets of their belief system, particularly its myopic sexism.
Obviously, a major theme is sexuality. Much has been made of the sex scene between Ronit and Esti, with some critics accusing it of being little more than titillation at best, a graphic example of the male gaze at worst. However, this is to completely miss the point of the scene in relation to the whole. There are actually two sex scenes in the film; one between Ronit and Esti, and the other between Esti and Dovid. And although they couldn't be more different, they also couldn't exist without one another, as the abandonment, lust, and sense of pressure being released when Esti is with Ronit contrasts sharply with the detached, formulaic, and passionless scene with Dovid; the two scenes explicitly comment on one another. The scene between Ronit and Esti is the physical manifestation of the characters' long-repressed desire. It's a wholly justified narrative moment, and a necessary beat for the two characters. It's not an aside or a piece of voyeuristic male fantasy, it's the centre of the whole film. Together, the two scenes represent Esti's binary choice - an unbridled and sexually fulfilling, but unstable relationship with Ronit, or a dutiful and dull, but respectful and secure relationship with Dovid.
If I had one major criticism, it would be that although Lelio's direction is extremely subtle, some of his and Lenkiewicz's writing choices are spectacularly on the nose. The opening sermon is a good example - a religious diatribe whose subject is mankind's freedom to choose, the concomitant ability to disobey, and the notion that freedom is impossible without sacrifice, in a film about these very same issues. Another example is that Dovid and his yeshiva students are discussing the one book of the Tanakh dealing with sexuality rather than spirituality, the Song of Songs, whilst Esti's secondary school students are studying adultery in Othello. The worst example of this, however, is found when Ronit and Esti go to Krushka's house and Ronit turns on the radio, which just so happens to be playing The Cure
's "Lovesong", a song which perfectly encapsulates their situation ("Whenever I'm alone with you/You make me feel like I am home again"). Not exactly subtle.
These issues aside though, this is an excellently crafted film. Once again examining female desire, issues of patriarchal oppression, and profound self-doubt, Lelio delivers a mature and considered meditation on the conflict between faith and sexuality. Eschewing black and white criticism of secular isolationism, Lelio respects the milieu too much to cast it as the villain. Instead, there is an elegance to the way in which he depicts it. Equal parts sensual and spiritual, the lethargic pace and absence of any narrative fireworks will probably alienate some, especially those expecting a pseudo-porn movie, but for the rest of us, this is thoughtful and provocative cinema in the best sense of the term.