Left to right: Rachel Weisz, Rachel McAdams and Alessandro Nivola in Disobedience. (photo from Bleecker Street)
Sebastián Lelio’s beautifully wrought Disobedience is some kind of small miracle. A close-up portrait of three 30-something British Jews grappling with their respective sexual and religious truths, it is a timeless saga that feels utterly contemporary.
It’s a film that probably couldn’t have been made even 10 years ago, because it assumes and addresses a world – or at least a generation or two – that is perfectly comfortable with the fluidity of sexual identity. Disobedience comes from a place where homosexual and bisexual relationships aren’t abnormal or unhealthy, even if they are still taboo in some subcultures.
Adapted from Naomi Alderman’s 2006 novel, Disobedience takes a familiar concept – the return of the prodigal child years after she left her Orthodox Jewish family and community – and spins it on a fresh and unexpected axis.
This type of drama has usually been framed as a dialectic between faith and secularism, and tradition and modernity. The emotional punch typically derives from sympathetic individuals bulldozed by a patriarchy portrayed as tyrannical and anachronistic.
The conflict in Disobedience isn’t between people on opposite sides of an irreconcilable philosophical divide – which would inevitably propel the viewer to identify with one protagonist and condemn the others – but within each person: who am I, and what hard choices do I need to make right now to live an authentic, satisfying life?
One refreshing consequence is there are no villains, whose roles are to constrain and injure the characters, in Disobedience. Furthermore, because the stakes are personal and individual, the film neatly sidesteps or backgrounds big-picture questions such as the modern world’s challenges and threats to the Orthodox community.
The movie opens with the elderly London rabbi of a small shul collapsing in mid-sermon. On the other side of the Atlantic, a dark-haired photographer (Rachel Weisz) shoots a man adorned with tattoos. The introduction of Ronit in conjunction with one of Judaism’s prohibitions instantly illustrates the distance she’s put between her upbringing and her current life. (In fact, if my hearing is accurate, in New York she dropped the “t” long ago and goes by Roni, an act of reinvention and assimilation.)
In a succession of quick shots, Ronit receives some bad news, has anonymous sex with a male stranger and, finally alone, tears her sweater in a Jewish gesture of mourning. The gifted Chilean filmmaker Lelio, who adapted the novel with British playwright Rebecca Lenkiewicz, immediately delineates a wild child who isn’t happy in the present nor reconciled to her past.
Ronit’s return to London for her respected father’s funeral isn’t welcomed by relatives and other members of the congregation, and we get the vaguest hints about the circumstances that led to her self-imposed exile. (Hers was the first act of disobedience, but it won’t be the last.) She receives a slightly warmer reception from the obvious heir to the late rav’s pulpit, the perpetually restrained Dovid Kuperman (Alessandro Nivola) and his demure wife Esti (Rachel MacAdams).
We expect the film to portray Ronit as a troubled heroine for choosing a “liberated” life and as the awkward outsider enduring a loss without much support. Lelio’s prior films, A Fantastic Woman (last year’s Academy Award-winning portrait of a grieving transgender woman) and Gloria (centred on an older woman who wilfully pursues a romance with a problematic man), conveyed his respect for women defying the judgment and rules of others.
However, Ronit behaves so selfishly and inappropriately that we are insulted along with the Orthodox characters. Disobedience is a form of rebellion, but people aren’t automatically entitled to hurt others – or to jeopardize their jobs and relationships – in the course of expressing their nonconformity. And that is the crux of Ronit’s entanglement with Esti and, to a lesser degree, Dovid. The great pleasure and power of Disobedience is the skill and subtlety with which Lelio interweaves their desires and responsibilities.
By the end of this terrific film, the various markers and labels that describe – and constrain – the characters have been scrubbed away. They are simply human beings, trying to do the right thing.
Disobedience opened May 18 at Cineplex Odeon International Village. The film is rated R for some strong sexuality.
Michael Fox is a writer and film critic living in San Francisco.