Passion, fear, defiance, and suspicion in an Orthodox Jewish community

Chilean filmmaker Sebastián Lelio recently won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film for A Fantastic Woman, the story of a transgender woman in Chile. It was one of my favorite films of 2017. Disobedience, which Lelio directed and cowrote, is Lelio’s first English-language film. It feels very different from A Fantastic Woman, though it also showcases Lelio’s ability to elicit masterful performances from his actors, allowing the characters to speak as loudly with their expressions as with their words.

Disobedience tells the story of Ronit (Rachel Weisz), Esti (Rachel McAdams), and Dovid (Alessandro Nivola), the closest of friends when they were growing up in an Orthodox Jewish community in North London. But something happened that caused Ronit to renounce her faith and leave her friends and father (the community’s beloved rabbi) behind, moving to New York City and becoming a successful photographer. Many years later, Ronit learns that her estranged father, known as the Rav, has died, and she returns to London. But despite being the Rav’s only child, Ronit does not feel welcome when she shows up at Dovid’s home, where the community is sitting shiva. Even Dovid’s welcome is hesitant, and he is surprised to see her there. But he eventually invites Ronit to stay with him and his wife, who Ronit is surprised to learn is none other than Esti.

From the moment we first see the three old friends together in the kitchen, we know that there are secrets and feelings between them that have been buried for many years. And we see hints that despite outward appearances of success (Dovid is the Rav’s successor and Esti is a popular schoolteacher), there is an underlying loneliness and deep unhappiness that haunts all of them beneath the surface. They seem utterly lost.

Eventually, we will understand that the source of this unhappiness is related to the presence of intense passions and a relationship between Ronit and Esti that certainly would not have been tolerated in a community that doesn’t even allow men and women to touch outside of marriage. As these passions rise to the surface again, Ronit, Esti, and Dovid are forced to reconsider their relationships, their current lives, their futures, and their faith in the midst of a Jewish community that watches their every move with suspicion.

From the moment we first see the three old friends together in the kitchen, we know that there are secrets and feelings between them that have been buried for many years.

The first half hour of Disobedience, in which the film slowly unveils its characters and their motives and feelings, is absolutely brilliant, the work of great writing and actors who are delivering perhaps the best performances of their careers. As the tension rises, some of this brilliance wanes, though I wonder whether I just wasn’t watching closely enough. Because this is not a film in which character development is made plain through dialogue. On the contrary, viewers are constantly forced to read expressions and to read between the lines and under the surface. It’s possible that one’s ability to do that will affect how one views the film’s unexpected twists and ending. So when I suggest that more character development, especially in the case of Dovid, might have been helpful to explain certain actions and decisions, I may just be admitting the limits of my ability to dig deep enough on my own.

The highlights of Disobedience, for me, are the understated performances of Weisz and McAdams and the perfect chemistry they create between their characters. But all the acting is outstanding, and it is matched by gorgeous cinematography, a beautiful score, and singing that is nothing short of sublime. Lelio’s writing and direction are top-notch, providing us with a thoughtful, moving drama that explores love, freedom, relationships, faith, and decision-making with respect and compassion for all involved, while neither preaching nor judging.

While it should be obvious from the above that I highly recommend this film, not least because it is so discussion worthy, I should add a warning (with a SPOILER ALERT), namely that Disobedience contains a semi-graphic (limited nudity) sex scene between two women that may offend some viewers.

Disobedience is rated R for some strong sexuality.

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