by Ken Bakely
The last words out of the mouth of the Rav Krushka (Anton Lesser) before he drops dead in the first scene of Sebastián Lelio’s Disobedience are part of a sermon. He is discussing the juxtaposition between the destiny of the creation story and the decisions we make in our lives that come from free will. It’s an invocation of an eternal struggle in religion that serves as a foreshadowing for the film to come. The rabbi was a powerful and respected voice in London’s Orthodox Jewish community, but there was disunity in his personal life, specifically relating to his estranged daughter Ronit (Rachel Weisz), who long ago left the faith, and went on to become successful photographer in New York City. Her return home for the funeral brings back not only old acquaintances and relatives, but a seemingly uninterrupted revival of everything she left behind.
The strict traditionalism of the environment, and critical eye that many view her with, are an oppressive force – even if the film is cagey about the specific details of her past. Instead, Disobedience presents the conflict between inherited fatalism and individualistic choices in the form of Ronit’s rekindling of a childhood friendship with Esti (Rachel McAdams), a woman who remained in the community, married a rabbi (Alessandro Nivola), and became a teacher at a religious school. Their reunion is initially tentative, as Esti expresses disbelief in practice, if not in sentiment, that Ronit is unafraid to challenge the strict standards of the religion. But looking closer reveals a more obvious attraction and shared sense of place. The subtext becomes text shortly thereafter, when Lelio reveals the true nature of Ronit and Esti’s bond, as they restart a romantic relationship that had existed in some form in their youth. It’s an immediate risk to Esti’s reputation, and a source of inherent internal and external conflict for Ronit, who had not pursued relationships with other women in the interim.
Disobedience explores them both with careful skill. Lelio, credited both as director and co-screenwriter (adapting Naomi Alderman’s acclaimed novel of the same name), approaches the material with aesthetic restraint: interiors, predominantly medium shots, and a cold color scheme – visual manifestations of the distant-yet-ensconced values that Ronit has spent her entire life fighting against. Accordingly, this allows the characters to come through to the forefront. Weisz and McAdams are stunning presences here, depicting Ronit and Esti as differing ends of a similar dynamic, whose disparate personalities reflect the conflict of fate and will that Ronit’s father expounds at the start. As for where they will end up over the course of the runtime, it’s never about creating firm character shifts as much as it is about the idea that they’re in these positions to begin with.
Lelio is a storyteller with a gift for letting characters (and their actors) navigate a complicated world with their own identities. On that note, Disobedience examines its larger thematic catalyst: the nature of religious authority against sexual and gender politics, and the framing of pre-existing relationships within this interruption of the status quo. Nivola’s Dovid is overlooked in basic discussions of the film, but he’s vital to understanding Esti’s ongoing ties to the religious and social ties of the Orthodox community. Dovid is the only viable possibility to succeed the deceased rabbi, and will thus attain the same coveted status of his predecessor. Esti is an educator, and a good one at that, but she doesn’t have the same trust or respect that her husband enjoys. The consequences of Ronit’s arrival move the needle further, but the film is careful to avoid thin screeds against anyone or anything in particular that would have debased its characters. This is instead about people, in these moments, and how it pertains to their shared origins, yet incompatible histories.
Considering all that’s ventured through in these two hours, it’s a shame that Disobedience can’t follow this energy from act to act, or cluster it into the definitive codas that Lelio’s prior work, A Fantastic Woman, employed with such vigor. Opposingly, there is the argument that he didn’t feel the need. There is a frankness to each interaction that works. When Ronit and Esti embrace, or later on, have sex, the camera captures their intimacy with a rare set of close-ups and active movement that brings up years of denied passion. And for a movie mostly without non-diegetic music, the few soundtrack choices made are killer. It amounts to a film that succeeds in its tight quarters, but hints at a wider fierceness that is always stamped out. Perhaps that makes us wonder what the more expressive interpretation would have been, but then again, if you think this movie is lacking in feeling, you’re not watching closely enough.