Hot on the high heels of his poignant transgender drama, A Fantastic Woman, filmmaker Sebastian Lelio turns again to the subject of freedom and identity vs. social conventions in Disobedience. But this time, the heroines’ adversary is not just society in general. The two women who dare to buck convention in the new film are members of a strict Orthodox Jewish community in London, where every transgression—every disobedience, particularly from its female members—is a sin of epic proportions.
Adapted from the book by Naomi Alderman, Leilo and co-scriptwriter Rebecca Lenkiewicz explore gender roles unquestioned for centuries within this closed community, and their unacknowledged consequences roiling just beneath the surface. Lelio lays out this milieu with deft strokes, keeps us guessing about what the potential outcome will be, then applies his innate compassion to a conflict-resolution scenario that is both unexpected and perfect.
Rachel Weisz stars as Ronit, an expat Brit with a thriving photojournalism career in New York City. Hearing that her father has died, the dynamic, beloved rabbi of a small synagogue in the Orthodox community she left behind in London, she heads home for the memorial services. The movie opens with the rabbi’s final sermon about God’s creations: angels, who have no desire to do evil, “beasts,” who have no desire to do good, and humans, who are gifted with free will to make a choice. (Pay attention; all these points figure into the plot.)
Ronit arrives on the doorstep of Dov (Alessandro Nivola), her father’s anointed successor. Dov, her friend from childhood, seems surprised to see her, but offers her a place to stay. More surprising to Ronit is that Dov is now married to Esti (Rachel McAdams), also one of Ronit’s childhood friends. The slight fissure of tension between the three of them at first is not immediately explained, but we sense that Ronit departed the community suddenly, and that it caused a rift between herself and her father—and the community at large.
After Dov’s terse declaration that “Everything this week must be conducted with honor,” we get a glimpse into that community as the ceremonies of mourning continue. When the rabbi delivers a sermon in the synagogue, the women are segregated in a small balcony, away from the men. Most of the wives and mothers wear wigs, covering their hair because a woman’s hair is considered erotic (unlike the luxurious beards of the men). That Ronit leaves hers uncovered sets tongues wagging, as does the fact that she is single and childless by choice.
It’s evident that men are not allowed to touch women to whom they are not married, so Dov and Ronit must resist the awkward impulse to hug each other when they reunite. But the scandal that shocked the community was not between the two of them, but involved Ronit and Esti. Ronit fled to reinvent herself and her life, while Esti allowed the community to swallow her up and define her. But it’s soon clear that the passion that flared up between them as teenagers has not cooled.
It’s interesting that Lelio chooses not to approach the material as a love story. The two women have a strong (even scorching) physical and emotional connection, but the fate of their forbidden romance is not what the movie is about at all. Instead, the characters must make their own choices about freedom and identity.
The actors explore every nuance of these characters. Weisz (who also co-produced) keeps Ronit poised between determined vitality and aching vulnerability. McAdams is the wild card as the more reserved Esti; her buried emotions smack the movie like a tsunami. Nivola is quite good as conflicted Dov, struggling to balance ancient principles with his sense of compassion.
It would have been interesting to see more evidence of how these three had all been best friends before—a brief flashback, or even an old photo. But that’s a small complaint in this touching, beautifully-tempered drama.
*** (out of four)
With Rachel McAdams, Rachel Weisz, and Alessandro Nivola. Written by Sebastian Lelio & Rebecca Lenkiewicz. From the book by Naomi Alderman. Directed by Sebastian Lelio. An A24 release. (R) 114 minutes.