An art photographer and an Orthodox Jewish wife re-ignite a forbidden passion in a romance that never quite finds its footing
Starring: Rachel Weiss, Rachel McAdams, Alessandro Nivola
Directed by: Sebastian Lelio
Running time: 114 minutes
Rating: 3 stars out of five
By Jay Stone
Some people are disobedient in Disobedience, a story of forbidden love set in a community of Orthodox Jews in London. But disobedience isn’t really what Disobedience is about, unless you look at it from the point of view of the reverent followers of tradition from whom that love must be kept a secret. It’s an upside-down approach that matches, in many ways, the uncertain — and often claustrophobic — structure of the film itself.
It stars Rachel Weiss as Ronit, a hip photographer in New York City whom we meet taking pictures of a heavily tattooed old man with a beard (Diane Arbus has a lot to answer for.) He makes a nice contrast to a rabbi (Anton Lesser) whom also see at the beginning of the film, another bearded man but this one — you can be sure — tattooless. The rabbi is speaking in a London synagogue about the possibility of free will for angels, beasts and human beings, and at the end of the lesson he clutches his heart and falls to the floor.
He has died, either of a heart attack or, as someone says later, pneumonia — the fuzzy edges of the plot go beyond notions of moral ambiguity — and Ronit, his daughter, is called back to England for the funeral. Why she left in the first place is for us to sort out, but it has something to do with sex, rebellion, a taste for freedom beyond the strictures of orthodoxy and, well, disobedience.
In London, Ronit is welcomed somewhat begrudgingly: it is clear there is something unacceptable in her past. She arrives at a modest North London home to meet with her childhood friend Dovid (Alessandro Nivola, in a performance that expertly balances religious zeal with humane caring). He has, since what one assumes to be a wild youth, become a rabbi himself; indeed, he is the spiritual heir of Ronit’s late father. A second surprise is that Dovid has married Esti (Rachel McAdams), another friend from their youth: one surmises that they shared many adventures that only Ronit did not outgrow.
Dovid now lives a pious life — “I keep my house in order,” he assures the synagogue elders — while Esti wears the wig prescribed by her orthodoxy, lights Sabbath candles and submits to Friday evening lovemaking that seems more dutiful than joyous.
The narrative hinge of Disobedience, which is based on a novel by Naomi Alderman, lies in what is brewing between Ronit and Esti. (Spoiler alert, although it doesn’t come as a surprise if you’ve seen the trailer or the some of the film posters.) Their sexual connection is persuasively passionate. Indeed, it is difficult to believe that their characters could be so fully devoted to one another and yet stay separated by an ocean and not even communicate for many years. In the formal behavior — bearded men in hats and black suits; bewigged women who sit in a separate part of the synagogue — we’re left to intuit the role of religion and of disapproval that must have kept them not only apart, but apparently content to keep it that way.
Chilean director and co-writer Sebastian Leilo, making his first English-language movie, has a sensitive feeling for the sexually oppressed outsiders in his films — such as Daniela in A Fantastic Woman — and he teases nuanced performances from his actors. Ronit and Esti are on a teeter-totter of desire that tips in unexpected ways. Weiss walks a fine line in her portrayal of Ronit, giving her the understanding of a rabbi’s daughter that blunts what one would have guessed to be the rebellious insouciance of a New York photographer. McAdams has a trickier role, keeping Esti reverent and responsible until the veneer of frustration is peeled away by her friend and she flowers as a lover.
They help sharpen what is in many ways a vague story set in a hermetic, colourless world. We never get to know Ronit and Esti beyond what they seem now to mean to one another. Their devotion to anything else — family, religion, a husband — comes and goes in a plot that furthermore seems stretched beyond what their passion can support. The unresolved shambles of their story is appropriate.
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