Disobedience (2017)

  • Time: 114 min
  • Genre: Drama | Romance
  • Director: Sebastián Lelio
  • Cast: Rachel McAdams, Rachel Weisz, Alessandro Nivola


From a screenplay by Sebastián Lelio and Rebecca Lenkiewicz, the film follows a woman as she returns to the community that shunned her decades earlier for an attraction to a childhood friend. Once back, their passions reignite as they explore the boundaries of faith and sexuality. Based on Naomi Alderman’s book, the film stars Rachel Weisz, Rachel McAdams and Alessandro Nivola.

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  • As in Sebastián Lelio’s previous film, the Oscar-winning A Fantastic Woman, Disobedience uses death as a springboard for a narrative concerning an outlier, specifically a woman, confronting questions of love, sexuality and personal freedom. Disobedience focuses on two women in particular – one named Ronit (Rachel Weisz), the other Esti (Rachel McAdams) – and how their reunion upends both of their lives.

    Ronit’s homecoming, precipitated by the news of her father’s death, is not a felicitous one and Lelio and Rebecca Lenkiewicz, adapting Naomi Alderman’s 2006 novel, slowly reveal the cause of the disharmony caused by her reappearance. Initially, the awkwardness and simmering friction seem to derive from Ronit’s decision many years ago to leave the Orthodox Jewish community in Hendon to live a secular life in New York, where she has established herself as a photographer. The community are shocked and wary at her return – they resent her for not being at the bedside of her ailing father (Anton Lesser), who was an important rabbi in the community; the congregants’ bitterness may have extended to the rabbi himself – his obituary noted that he left behind no children.

    Her childhood friends, Dovid (Alessandro Nivola) and Esti are now married, a development that surprises Ronit. The couple are also standoffish, though Dovid, who was treated by her father like the son he never had and who is now poised to become the new rabbi, at least displays an empathy and understanding of her situation. It should be well noted that Nivola is nothing less than superb in this role. He embodies Dovid’s conflict, integrity and strength of character so deeply that he nearly makes one wish that the entire film had been told from Dovid’s perspective. His reaction and subsequent grappling of faith as a result of Ronit and Esti’s renewed romantic relationship is, in many respects, far more textured and intriguing than the women’s forbidden love.

    Which is to take nothing away from that central focus for both Weisz and McAdams are magnificent and Lelio and Lenkiewicz so thoughtful in the depiction of the romance. What’s especially interesting is that Ronit and Esti are almost falling in love with alternate versions of themselves – Esti with Ronit’s independent spirit and the life that would have been hers had she gone, and Ronit with Esti’s devoutness and the life that would have been hers had she stayed. Yet, the women are who they are and that is what makes their love both so impassioned and impossible – in order to be together, they would have to renounce some part of themselves, the very part that they love most about each other.

    The film is cloaked in a hushed austerity, yet Lelio and cinematographer Danny Cohen discover sensual pleasures to be found in the sombre colour palette of blacks, browns, greys, and blues. The restraint and respect shown by Lelio and Lenkiewicz are remarkable yet, at times, the film is too contained for its own good. The pivotal scene during which Ronit and Esti physically connect has a rawness and intimacy that may be commonplace in European films but is startling in one featuring two of Hollywood’s A-list actresses. However, that passion is undercut by the film’s self-possessed chill and the film slackens instead of galvanises as a result.

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