Disobedience is the new film from director Sebastián Lelio, his second in less than a year following his Oscar winning A Fantastic Woman. Disobedience and A Fantastic Woman in many ways make for a perfect pair, both films addressing themes of acceptance and how something as simple as identity can lead to isolation and unjust rejection. Disobedience takes place almost entirely within an Orthodox Jewish community which, despite being in close proximity to some densely populated areas, feels entirely isolated from the world. Coming from a Jewish family, the film was culturally identifiable for me in many ways, though I imagine that any viewer approaching the film who came from a somewhat religious background could relate to the puritanical, almost cult-like behavior of this extremely conservative community.
The film opens on an orthodox rabbi, Rav Krushka (Anton Lesser) giving a sermon on God’s creation of angels, beasts, and man. He emphasizes man’s unique individualism and the privilege and burden of free will not extended to the other two creatures. While pontificating on the value of making one’s own choices, the rabbi collapses. It is revealed that he is the father of Ronit (Rachel Weisz), a photographer working in New York. When Ronit returns to her childhood community, it is immediately apparent that she is not being welcomed with open arms. She agrees to stay at the home of her childhood friend and heir apparent to her father’s position in the synagogue Dovid (Alessandro Nivola), only to discover that he has married her other childhood friend Esti (Rachel McAdams). The reason for Ronit’s rejection is soon revealed: she and Esti were lovers and had been caught by the Rav, after which she fled the community to avoid being married off.
Disobedience is a stunningly patient film, and Lelio doles out information just quickly enough as to not make the film drag. As soon as there is the slightest lull, a new twist or piece of background information renews the pit that Lelio is building in his audience’s collective stomach. Ronit’s isolation among the community that raised her is upsettingly authentic. Most of the film is conveyed through her perspective as relatives and childhood friends give her the cold shoulder or say hurtful and demeaning things directly to her face. Beneath the film’s sexual and romantic themes is Ronit’s mere desire to find a shred of evidence that her father loved her in his dying moments, as nobody informed her of his illness in time for her to reconcile with him before he died. When she learns that her father left his house and belongings to the synagogue, her uncle digs the knife in with a backhanded comment about how painful it must be for her to learn that she never earned his forgiveness. It is a heart wrenching moment that emphasizes just how cruel this sort of religious zealotry can be to those perceived as abandoners of the faith.
The film, however, does not focus only on Ronit. Esti is not merely an outlet for Ronit’s sexual liberation, but is an equally complex character with perhaps an even more devastating story. While Ronit is bisexual, Esti reveals that she is only attracted to women but was forced into marrying Dovid after having a breakdown when Ronit left. Her faith and religious devotion is genuine, which creates further complexities with her sexual identity. Esti struggles throughout the film with the conflict between her true sexual nature and her place as a wife in a society where a woman’s role is to take care of her husband and to bear children. This conflict is at times unjustly overshadowed by Ronit’s own personal troubles, but if there is one truly tragic character in this story it is Esti.
Still, the dynamic between the pair is where the film draws its most sentimental moments. Disobedience is somehow both overt and restrained in its sexuality. While the film is heavily sexual in its nature, it is not explicit for explicitness’ sake. It plays out sexual moments as a means of showing true love and desire through physical passion. Lelio’s shot composition is a perfect representation of this, choosing to focus on the faces of his characters as they feel the pleasure of true passion. These moments keep hope alive that perhaps these characters might find happiness and liberation.
This film is not without its issues. It is at times a bit over-expository. It’s not that it’s especially dialogue-heavy for this sort of family drama, but certain scenes do play out as characters waxing poetic about details of their past that would never be so explicitly spelled out in casual conversation. Some of this is forgivable due to Ronit’s long absence, but it is still distracting in moments. The most conflicting moment for me comes toward the film’s finale when Dovid speaks at the Rav’s memorial and seems to come to terms with his Ronit and Esti’s relationship. While it is, in many ways, a very touching moment, it also plays out a bit like the finale of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, when Spencer Tracy liberates a black family of the burden of racism by giving a rousing speech. One wonders whether LGBTQ groups would look fondly upon the idea of the ultra-conservative religious leader effectively granting the characters permission to be lesbians. Still, I don’t think it’s problematic enough to defeat the film’s message. It’s more of an awkward moment worth analyzing in context.
In all, Disobedience is a well executed family drama and romance with a touching message. A film like this does not work without strong performances and a palpable chemistry between its leads. Weisz and McAdams disappear into their characters and their passion, repression, and yearning for each other are heartfelt and genuine. In an era of troubling tensions between the religious right and the civil liberties of LGBTQ individuals, Disobedience is a sentimental and intimate entry.