By Janine Gericke.
Sebastián Lelio’s Disobedience is a frustrating film. Not because of poor performances or a meandering story, but because it’s so real. Based on the novel by Naomi Alderman, the story centers on two lovers who are pulled apart by their community and religion. The circumstances are heartbreaking, as is any good love story. This is a beautifully made film, with some of the best performances by Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams yet. The film struggles to answer the question, do you go with your heart or do you lead the life that is expected of you?
After her orthodox rabbi father passes away, a New York photographer named Ronit (Rachel Weisz) is drawn back to London and the small Jewish community that shunned her years ago for her amorous relationship with a female friend.
When she arrives in London, no one is at the airport to greet her. As she walks around her old neighborhood, she looks shaken to be back. She visits her friend Dovid’s (Alessandro Nivola) house for the services, but he states that they weren’t expecting her. It’s revealed that Ronit’s father left her nothing, his obituary even states that he had no children. At the services, she sees Esti (Rachel McAdams), her long ago love and discovers that Esti has married Dovid. The couple insists that Ronit stay in their home during her visit. And so, the story begins. Everything comes rushing back, and Ronit and Esti can no longer hide from their past.
Lelio and cinematographer Danny Cohen have crafted a gorgeous film where the visuals and characters complement each other. Much like its characters, the look of Disobedience is restrained, with the exception of Ronit, in her leather skirts and jacket, chain smoking, and free flowing hair. Ronit is the burst of color in the film. She is the contrast to Esti, with her traditional wig and modest black clothing. In the few scenes where Esti takes off her wig and clothes, it feels like she is shedding a false persona, she appears lighter. Once Ronit is back in her life, Esti also finds her voice. In a Shabbat dinner scene, the conversation turns to the fact that Ronit has changed her name for work, as many artists do. Esti says “women change their names every day. They take their husband’s names and their history is gone.” After several seconds of silence, Moshe Hartog (Allan Corduner) says, “I wouldn’t talk about gone. Not gone.” Ronit states very matter of factly, “Yes, they do.” It is a brave statement for Esti to make.
Lelio’s film tackles many themes – including the weight of free will and forbidden love – but the main focus of the story is the relationship between Ronit and Esti. Nivola gives a terrific performance as the devout husband caught in the middle of this love triangle. When Ronit walks back into Esti’s life, the connection is painfully obvious, especially to Dovid. In almost every scene where Weisz and McAdams are alone, they have an ability to convey these feelings without saying much at all. When these women look at each other, you can feel that tension, excitement, and longing. In one particular scene, the women are finally alone, at Ronit’s father’s home. Esti and
Ronit are at opposite sides of the frame, showing the distance that has grown between them. As Esti approaches Ronit, the camera moves in very close, intensifying an intimate moment.
I won’t talk too much about the sex scene, since I realize many other reviews out there discuss the lack of the male gaze, the fact that these women are not shown as objects of male pleasure, which is very refreshing. The scene focuses more on Esti and how she finally gets what she has longed for. The women remain mostly clothed throughout the scene and again Lelio keeps the camera very close to the actresses. I apologize if I’m giving away too much here. What’s interesting is what happens after this. Ronit sits on the floor, cigarette in hand, with Esti sitting on the bed, smoking, sans wig, and feeling free. Ronit says she wants to take her picture, so she pulls out her camera. As a photographer, Ronit sees people for who they really are, and here Esti is herself. It’s real and it’s raw. Take this scene, in contrast with an earlier scene with Esti and Dovid having sex. It’s clear that Esti is just going through the motions. Looking at her face, she is not present. With Ronit, she doesn’t have to think, she doesn’t have to pretend. She completely lets herself go.
Disobedience is definitely a timely story. It may be hard to put yourself in these characters’ shoes and, for some, this story may hit a little too close to home. There is hope in this story, hope that people can fight to create their own path in life. This film enshrines the struggle that many people face to be themselves no matter what their community tells them that they have to be.
Janine Gericke is a Film International ‘In the Field’ writer.