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  • Writer's pictureBen Turner

Disobedience ****

Starring: Rachel Weisz, Rachel McAdams, Alessandro Nivola

Director: Sebastian Lelio

Country: UK

In 2009, Israeli film Eyes Wide Open depicted a same-sex relationship between two men in an Orthodox Jewish community in Jerusalem. Now, Chilean director Sebastian Lelio, hot off his Oscar-win for this year’s A Fantastic Woman, has done the same for an Orthodox Jewish community in London, but this time between two women. But unlike the former film, which revolved entirely around the internal struggles the men faced in embracing and exploring their sexuality, this takes a different route with a lot more narrative.

Ronit (Weisz) is living in New York and working as a photographer. When her father dies, she returns to London for his funeral, where she is forced to confront the community that she left behind. Estranged from her family for many years, her former friends and relatives are disapproving of her liberal life in America and are still sore about her sudden disappearance years before. Her father was a Rav (a spiritual teacher) and considered highly by his peers and followers, of which her childhood friend Dovid (Nivola) had become a disciple. In her absence, he has married Esti (McAdams), a mutual friend with whom Ronit has a tense relationship. But the longer Ronit stays in their house, the more the complicated relationship between the two women leads to the uncovering of old wounds and questions about the future.

Inititally, Weisz’s re-entry into this select community gives us an anthropological stand-point, seeing the quirks of their community as markedly different from the life she lives in New York. Ronit is obstinate and stubborn, clearly resentful of having returned at all, but driven by her love for and duty to her father. She has clearly been burned by the community she grew up in and she is greeted exactly by the reaction she was expecting from them. But just as the community are on the verge of being demonised, the narrative focus shifts over to Esti, where we see it in a whole new light.

McAdams gives a brilliantly nuanced performance as a woman torn between the two opposing forces in her life. Her faith as a Jew is palpable; she wants to be a part of her community and she doesn’t want to have to leave it behind. However, her feelings toward Ronit are in strict opposition to this. Additionally, she has married a man highly active in her faith, but she knows that she did it in an attempt to make the best of the situation that Ronit left behind when she left. Initially it was Ronit that was driving the narrative, but it becomes increasingly clear that really this is Esti’s story, tackling the problems she had long ago buried beneath the expectations of her community.

The chemistry between the pair is electric and for a film relies so much on the unsaid, when we do see the pair engaged in coitus the result is animal and visceral. The film’s title claims that the actual existence of their relationship is an act of disobedience against the community, but that goes a long way to undermine the feelings they have for one another. Their relationship was never political in intent; instead, Esti has been nothing but obedient and when she finally does stand up for herself, her manner is still one of compromise. Where the film begins with our pity for Esti, by the end it’s clear that her religious obeisance is definitely a choice and her compliance comes from a place of faith.

The film also manages to take an effective snapshot of life as a London Orthodox Jew. It opens in the synagogue with a speech from the Rav, much remiscent of the opening shot of Mike Nichols’ Angels In America, but from there we see an intriguing insight into the community; its traditions, foods, gatherings, rituals, clothing and relationships. Also, the music is used diegetically within their worship and then bleeds out through the rest of the film, underpinning the story with intense and eerie choral pieces that gives the movie added poignance that underlines the characters’ inner turmoil. Similarly, Nivola’s performance as Dovid finds a disquieting equilibrium between compassion and pride, which when played alongside the story of his wife finding love elsewhere, makes him a much more likeable character than you might expect. Though slow at times, Disobedience is a gutsy film that gives a fascinating glimpse behind the curtain of a community so rarely depicted on screen.


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