Film, 2017, 3.5 stars
Written by: Sebastián Lelio and Rebecca Lenkiewicz
Directed by: Sebastián Lelio
Legend has it that Rachel Weisz wanted to make a lesbian film, or at least a film that had her starring opposite another woman. She cast about, and settled on a novel by Naomi Alderman about a young woman who returns after the death of her Rabbi father to the orthodox jewish community in North London where she grew up, and reconnects with a lover from her past.
The resultant film is Disobedience, in which Weisz stars as Ronit Krushka, a free-spirited New York photographer struggling to reconcile her love for her deceased father with her sheer hatred of and impatience with of the religious trappings that she escaped long ago. Weisz stars with Rachel McAdams as Esti, who is unexpectedly good as the adventurous young jewish woman from Ronit’s past, who is attempting to quell her longings within the structure of marriage and her cherished career as a teacher.
Esti has married Dovid (Alessandro Novolo, who has never been better), a gentle, loving man who was Ronit’s best friend as a child, and who is now a Rabbi, straddling the old ways with an understanding of the present. Dovid clearly loves Esti, and would do anything other than break the tenets of his faith to make her life with him a happy one. It’s made awkwardly clear that while Esti and Ronit’s relationship in the past could never be acknowledged, everyone clearly knows something happened.
So we understand that Ronit didn’t just run from the restrictive life within her faith, she fled from a love she could never have. Shockingly, it is in fact Esti, through the excuse of Ronit’s father’s death, who has summoned Ronit home again to face the past.
Through the sheer discomfort of family dinners and ceremonies surrounding Rabbi Krushka’s death and the pressure surrounding Dovid’s likely rise through the ranks as Krushka’s designated successor, it doesn’t take long before Esti and Ronit rekindle the fire from their youth. Unable to meet within the bounds of the community they escape outside it, and Esti experiences her first few precious hours of freedom in years, which evokes both happiness and sorrow.
The ratcheting up of the film’s tension through the erotic scenes between the two women is where Disobedience almost falls apart. Having played so beautifully the pressure cooker of simmering passion between the two women, the director (Sebastián Lelio) makes some shockingly bad choices in the almost six minute sex scene that makes me wonder, yet again, what men really think two women do while having sex. Yes it’s messy and realistic, which is great, but I’ve never met anyone who believes swapping spittle between two women counts as an erotic act.
Freedom, and its unique definition to each person, plays strongly within the narrative. Ronit’s version of freedom is the ability to run as far away as she possibly can and leave her past behind. The fact that her father has absconded her in his will means that she is frustrated to not receive the expected financial freedom she thought was her right upon her father’s death. Dovid’s idea of freedom is to devote his full heart to his faith, and expect his wife would want the same. Esti’s idea of freedom is to have the right to make simple choices, and for any children she brings into the world to have the right to follow their own chosen path. Each of them is in for a rude shock, and none are fully satisfied with the outcome.
To highlight the rigidity of this world and the sombre plotlines, the film is deliberately dark, oppressive, and rich with closeups that highlight the character’s inner feelings, rather than any large and overt gestures. While Weisz’s Ronit is wonderfully acted and filled with sorrow and rebellion, it is perhaps McAdams and Novolo who carry the greatest burdens here, needing to show depth of feeling and inner conflict within the strict conservatism of their faith.
There’s no doubt Disobedience draws you in and tugs cruelly at the heart strings, but it’s not a perfect film. The script has a certain wisdom. The performances are nuanced and eloquent, and both Esti and Ronit’s moments of quiet rebellion are satisfying. In the end though, the director made one too many wrong choices that brought us jarringly, unnecessarily out of the magic, to be entirely satisfied with the experience.