Film review: Disobedience

30 November 2018

Stephen Brown reviews a film about religious belonging and marriage

Rachel Weisz, Rachel McAdams, and Alessandro Nivola in Disobedience

Rachel Weisz, Rachel McAdams, and Alessandro Nivola in Disobedience

THE crux of Disobedience (Cert. 15) lies in the address on free will which Rav Krushka (Anton Lesser) gives his Charedi congregation. These are highly Orthodox Jews, popularly known as the Black Hats because of the male headgear. “So what is this thing: man, woman?” the rabbi asks. “It is a being with the power to disobey.” Then he dies.

A rapid switch to Ronit (Rachel Weisz), now a professional New York photographer. The rabbi’s only child, she severed ties with Judaism (or at least that branch of the faith) to the extent that Krushka disowned her. But for a discreet phone call from Esti (Rachel McAdams), a friend from her teenage years, Ronit would remain ignorant of the death. She flies home to north London, where she encounters relatives, friends, and members of the synagogue during Shiva, the week of mourning.

Most of them tacitly display hostility to her. Dovid (Alessandro Nivola) is tentative in his greetings, despite having grown up as, to all intents and purposes, her brother. He has married Esti. We learn that she and Ronit had sexual relations in their youth. What is never told is whether this caused the family rift and Ronit’s exile. There is a beautiful subtlety to Disobedience, inviting us to discern the space between the words. This first film in English from the Chilean director Sebastián Lelio continues his exploration, as with A Fantastic Woman and Gloria, of women’s interior lives.

On the surface, Ronit has successfully removed what she perceives as the shackles of religion. Abroad, she photographs those who refuse to conform, who disobey convention. She is not, in P. G. Wodehouse’s phrase, actually disgruntled, but far from being gruntled. At an excruciating family dinner, Ronit criticises the institutional obligations that Charedi Judaism imposes. Married women are expected, for modesty, to wear wigs to conceal their crowning glory. Yet the ones that they buy from Krushka’s brother, Moshe (Allan Corduner), make them more attractive to other men.

Sex on Friday nights is a religious duty. That is especially evident in the case of Esti, who has so far repressed those long-held feelings for Ronit. She tries hard to be a model Jewish wife. Dovid, a fine man, is more difficult to read. He is an obvious successor at synagogue to his putative father. We see him at scripture class. The text (of course!) just had to be the Song of Songs. Dovid offers a non-erotic interpretation, whereas a student suggests that we’re at our most divine in the act of love. Typically, Dovid neither agrees nor disagrees.

When Ronit and Esti resume a lesbian relationship with all the heart-searching that this involves, we could decide that the film was a new exploration of the eternal triangle. That is only half the story, because its core is freedom, even when judged as disobedience to God. Religions that freeze our humanity, or maintain that only their specific version is true, are under gentle scrutiny here. The greeting “May you live a long life” is frequently uttered throughout Disobedience. The unspoken rejoinder is: “But what kind of life should it be?”

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