Sebastian Lelio’s Disobedience is a bleak and sensual exploration of faith and sexuality. It is a dour film bursting at its seams with aching and love. It is not a simple film because the characters themselves are not simple.
One of the joys of Disobedience is how it unfolds before our eyes, letting us put together what happened for ourselves. There is never a scene where the characters sit down and explain earlier events and how it affected them. Lelio, who also co-wrote the script along with Rebecca Lenkiewicz, does a wonderful job of letting us come to these conclusions for ourselves.
Ronit (Rachel Weisz) gets a message in her New York loft that her father has died. When we meet Ronit she is taking pictures of a man covered in tattoos. The way she cajols the man into loosening up and engages with the man clues us into the notion that she views photography as something more than a job.
We’ve seen her father, Rav Krushka (Anton Lesser), as he converses with other rabbis only to suffer a heart attack. A young man Dovid (Alessandro Nivola) is by his side calling for help. When Ronit returns home it is Dovid who answers the door.
Both are shocked to see each other. Dovid is happy to see her and reaches out to hug her, catches himself, and recoils. Ronit is welcomed by Dovid but not by the orthodox Jewish community whom her father was a prominent figure. Disobedience draws us into the lives of Dovid and Ronit as we observe their interactions and rituals of the community.
It is evident that Ronit understands her community more than they understand her. The way people speak to her it is as if she some stranger from a far-off land. Their reactions seem to follow a pattern of surprise and shock followed by polite conversation. We begin to notice how people tend to be giving Ronit a wide berth.
As Ronit and Dovid talk in the kitchen, she learns Dovid has married. Bemused she begins to tease him. This exposes the breadth and length of their friendship. The two share a deep catalog of knowledge of each other.
Enter Esti (Rachel McAdams), Dovid’s wife. Immediately it becomes clear that Esti, Ronit, and Dovid were childhood friends. Dovid asks why Ronit has come back. Ronit is taken aback. She wants to sell her father’s house but more importantly, she thought Dovid was the one who left her the message about her father.
An adaptation of the book of the same name by Naomi Alderman, unread by me, Disobedience explores the desire to belong and the struggle to be true to oneself. It does so by its setting and observing how the characters interact within the setting. As Disobedience uncoils before us we begin to understand Ronit’s exile.
Through conversations, we begin to piece together a rough idea of what happened. Ronit and Esti were caught making out by Ronit’s father. Refusing to change for her father or her father’s religion, she fled. Lelio and Lenkiewicz set the mood and atmosphere almost from the first scene. The words spoken are few but so carefully chosen they help reveal much about the character speaking them even if we only see them for a scene.
Ronit is at a dinner with Esti, Dovid, and other family members and the way they talk with each other belies the distance that has grown between Ronit and her family. More than an outsider, she’s treated like a little girl at times. Questions about whether or not she’s getting married anytime soon or even having children. Ronit’s scornful laugh at the mention of kids seems to only put more distance between her and the other members of her family.
Coming out involves a barrage of dangers and pitfalls. The one most commonly dealt with is a familial exile. What isn’t talked about much, within film at least, is the risk of spiritual exile. For so long queer characters have existed as either saints or deeply troubled souls in need of rescue. So shallow has our consideration of them been that most movies never even broach the notion of what they believe.
Ronit fled the community but Esti stayed. She married Dovid, as advised by Rav Krushka. Dovid is a nice man, the two have grown up together, “You can do worse for a husband.” So she married Dovid. “Do you still like women?” Ronit asks, herself an implied bisexual. Esti nods.
Esti is not just terrified of being shunned by her community in a physical sense. She is terrified of being shunned by her spiritual community, which for her, are one in the same. For her, the spiritual exile she would have to endure is not worth the physical exile that would be forced upon her.
McAdams and Weisz share a magnetic chemistry with each other. Not just in terms of the secretive glances they steal of one another. But in how they find themselves immersed in each other’s thoughts and ideas. McAdams plays Esti as a woman sure of herself and her decision. Which is thrown into self-doubt the moment Ronit shows up.
Weisz and McAdams are two actresses who are so good they are rarely given the credit due to them. They share an innate talent for instantly inhabiting a character almost on sight. Most actors require a scene or two for us to buy them or some kind of wacky or grand entrance. But Weisz and McAdams make us believe their characters by the way they sit and hold themselves.
The two share a sex scene, edited by Weisz, in an attempt to eschew the male gaze. It is refreshing in its frankness. Most sex scenes between women have a tendency to be choreographed by people who seem to think there is only one way to have sex. Unlike most sex scenes Disobedience is less about lust and more about being intimate with someone who understands you.
Nivola’s Dovid orbits the story as a man unaware of what is going on between his friend and wife. He is aware of what happened before but believes her to be over it. Impressively, Dovid is not a villain of the piece. When he discovers his wife is having an affair he is hurt, confused, and angry. At one point Dovid cruelly tells Esti, “She’ll go back to men. Just like she always does.” For Dovid sexuality is a straight line. Though he loves Ronit, he cannot truly understand her.
Yet, the climax of Disobedience involves not some great and violent screaming match in which everyone leaves hurt and emotionally brutalized. Instead, it happens in a synagogue. A favored student of the Rav’s Dovid has been chosen to be his replacement.
The night before Dovid and Ronit have learned that Esti is pregnant. Dovid is ecstatic until Esti asks him to grant her the freedom to leave. Now standing in the synagogue Dovid must make a choice just like Ronit and Esti have. As Dovid speaks he begins to realize he has much to learn himself.
Lelio infuses a great well of empathy and humanity in Disobedience. It’s not about a love triangle so much as people trying to make the right choice for themselves. Ronit is trying to come to terms with a father who was ashamed of her. But Ronit is not ashamed of him. Esti is forced to decide if she should continue to deny being who she is? Dovid himself is faced with his own beliefs mixed with what he knows. If he loves Esti as much as he claims can he in good conscience force her to stay with him in a marriage that does not make her truly happy.
Danny Cohen, who shot Disobedience, composes the frames with a palate of muted colors and a bleak beauty. He positions the camera in such a way as to make us feel the inner life of the characters. I especially loved how the camera follows Dovid as he walks into the booth with the other rabbis only to walk back out. His indecision over the choice he’s been given roiling within him. The way Cohen frames his shots allows a tenderness to form between us and the characters on screen. When Ronit is making her way through a crowd of mourners, the camera is behind her. We see the faces of the other mourners as they taker her in like some sort of alien creature. The distance and perspective help us viscerally feel Ronit’s nervousness.
I loved how at the end the plot wasn’t wrapped up in a neat tidy bow. Decisions have been made and they feel like the right decisions; even if they are not exactly the ones we hoped for. The messiness of Disobedience fits its own sort of shaggy structure. Movies about grief, sexuality, religion, and the choices we make tend not to make for rigidly structured stories.
I should be clear Disobedience never implies that Ronit or Esti’s sexuality is a choice. Esti chooses to stay within the community because she believes in the teachings of the Torah. She marries Dovid because she believes it’s the best thing for her. It’s not until she sees Ronit that she realizes how wrong she is. The choices and the freedom to make those choices are not centered on who they are but rather in how they express themselves.
Watching Disobedience I was reminded a lot of John Cassavetes. Cassavetes made movies about people in the midst of some sort of great emotional crisis. But when asked what Cassavetes was most interested in he responded with “love”. Indeed his movies deal with more than anything, people in a desperate search of love.
Disobedience is not as searing emotionally as the films of Cassavetes often are. But it comes pretty close at times. It’s rare that a movie looks at something like faith and love and doesn’t try to sermonize over it. Instead, Disobedience gives us the benefit of intelligence and allows us to decide for ourselves what we think.