Written and Directed by Sebastián Lelio.
Starring Rachel Weisz, Rachel McAdams, Alessandro Nivola, Anton Lesser, Cara Horgan, Nicholas Woodeson, Allan Corduner, Sophia Brown, and Bernice Stegers.
A woman returns to the community that shunned her for her attraction to a childhood friend. Once back, their passions reignite as they explore the boundaries of faith and sexuality.
Disobedience sees Oscar-winning filmmaker for last year’s foreign features, Sebastian Lelio, continuing to explore much of the same themes touched upon in A Fantastic Woman; grieving the loss of a loved one is a human right, self-discovery, freedom of choice, and how alienating society can be to those with differing beliefs and lifestyles. At the end of that review, I wrote that the message can essentially be tidily summed up as one pleading with people to simply treat everyone with human decency, something that isn’t hard at all to carry out in day-to-day life. That same sentiment also applies here.
The narrative begins with New York photographer Ronit (Rachel Weisz delivering a commanding performance containing confrontational electricity and somberness in search for acceptance) receiving word from an unknown sender that her rabbi father has suddenly passed away of pneumonia, which elicits a whirlwind of emotions and some unbecoming behavior before heading back home to the London Jewish Orthodox community that has ostracized her, and judging from the expressions of her arrival, feels that because of her sexual orientation does not even deserve the funeral invitation. However, she does have a close friend still around, father’s helping hand Rabbi David (Alessandro Nivola getting more complex material to work with than the traditional antagonist role viewers might assume coming in) who also happens to be married to her childhood best friend Esti (Rachel McAdams with a brilliantly layered turn as the dutiful and unhappy wife suppressing her true sexuality to settle for conventional married life).
I will be dumbfounded if anyone isn’t aware going into Disobedience that a loving and physical relationship reignites between these two ladies that threatens to rip apart faithfulness and faith, but it should be noted that Sebastian Lelio (making his first English-speaking film and pulling double duty adapting the novel of the same name by Naomi Alderman with writing and directing credits) is in no rush to reach that point of the story. He wants to linger on the internal suffering these two women are going through, whether it be expressing how unwanted Ronit is back home or Esti finding absolutely no pleasure whatsoever engaging in weekly sex with David. Naturally, this makes for a poetic juxtaposition when the ladies defy religion and order by releasing years of sexual repression and frustration with each other in a liberating erotic sequence that serves a purpose other than titillation. Occasionally, the creative decision makes for a slow burn with slight first act pacing issues, but Lelio also deserves to be applauded for exposing the agony of his subjects, also allowing for the methodical photography that sticks with these characters’ emotions and the pleasant score to stand out.
Disobedience also deals with the obvious dilemma of how long this forbidden love can be kept up before locals become wise to what is going on, a place where the acting truly takes off thanks to opposite perspectives and personalities that generate more drama within the delicate situation. Naturally, Ronit wants this love more while Esti already has an established life to account for, and although this is definitely the most narratively conventional film Lelio has made yet, there are still subversive elements at play. It feels less like a takedown of the Jewish Orthodox religion and more of a lesson to live by the positive messages of those scriptures instead of twisting them into something close-minded and hateful. The film even opens with a death during a sermon on the importance of the freedom to choose.
Whereas most lesbian romances feel designed to just show love with some glimpses of how it affects the family and friends around them, Disobedience is also about a woman on a spiritual journey to make amends with her father and find any semblance of peace and acceptance, along with fixed on highlighting the struggles that religion can inflict on mindsets that may not align with what is written down, and a unifying testament to true love never fizzling out. Refreshing perspectives and point of views all around (most likely because the story was initially written by a woman) elevate Disobedience beyond standard conflicted romance fare. Lelio is one of a kind at creating beautifully drawn portraits of disenfranchised types that deserve respect, simultaneously showing up the ugliness of humanity in grounded ways, but there is also no spark here without the fearlessly committed performances from Weisz and McAdams.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, friend me on Facebook, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, check out my personal non-Flickering Myth affiliated Patreon, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com