Religion and homosexual romance are like water and fire in today’s society, yet it’s surprisingly rare to find a film brave enough to tackle both issues tastefully at the same time. Ever since I saw the trailer for Sebastián Lelio’s new arthouse film “Disobedience” I’ve been curious to see how the movie would tackle these very separate but also unintentionally united aspects of humanity and society in its exploration of a same-sex relationship between two women raised within an extremely religious society. It had the makings of a revolutionary story, but does it live up to the promise? This is my review of “Disobedience”.
WHAT’S IT ABOUT
Based on the controversial book by Naomi Alderman, “Disobedience” sees a photographer named Ronit (Rachel Weisz) return to an Orthodox Jewish community in London where she was raised after her farther, a devout Rabbi, passes away. There she reunites with her old friend, and her father’s protégé, Dovid (Alessandro Nivola) and discovers that Dovid has married Esti (Rachel McAdams), another of Ronit’s old friends. In their past Ronit and Esti had experienced a romantic connection, leading to Esti’s reformation under the watch of the Rabbi, and thus marrying Dovid, and Ronit abandoning the community that turned her into a social pariah. As the celebration of the Rabbi’s life approaches Ronit deals with the insecurities of perception for her life choices and leaving her father behind while Esti struggles with the arrival of her old flame and managing a marriage she never wanted. When the two women rekindle their romance they challenge the limitations of their predisposed religion with an entire community looking on in judgement.
To put it lightly I was impressed by “Disobedience”. I know it’s an arthouse film and it’s not necessarily for everyone, but this romantic drama actually has a lot to say relevant to issues of society today that I think many people could appreciate. Director Sebastián Lelio does a nice job balancing the different themes of this movie which include the bonds of friendship, sexual identity, religious persecution, individuality in the face of societal norms, and the issues of personal legacy. Most notable of all, while it is based on a preexisting work of literature “Disobedience” feels unique in its attempt to focus on the oh so relevant issue of religion versus homosexuality without necessarily vilifying or glorifying either side of the argument. As viewers we can respect the Orthodox Jewish community but we can also support the relationship between two women with a genuine connection. Instead of making one side evil and other side righteous “Disobedience” asks the viewer to make their own judgments: which is right, which is wrong, or are they both justified in their own ways?
I found “Disobedience” to be a rather immersive film. Most of the action takes place within the confines of the Jewish community with a few scenes here or there in the heart of London. That being said there was incredible attention to detail in setting up what this community is all about including its customs and gender roles. It even incorporates a greeting used by all of the residents “may you live a long life”. We get a great sense of how these people live and many aspects of this community are borrowed straight from real life Jewish traditions. Sebastián Lelio clearly had a vision and went to painstaking lengths to create a believable and fully realized community set on their religious ways without making them out to be cult like. To that end this is both an atmospheric film and one that contains a very human and emotionally charged story.
“Disobedience” also doesn’t shy away from graphic content, especially considering that the premise focuses heavily on sexuality. While we may disagree with the criticisms and limitations this isolated society sets on gender roles the tone of film allows viewers to accept the religious community for what they are even while throwing it under the bus. They’re actually pretty harmless, but the film holds nothing back in depicting the separation of these Jewish people from the concept of homosexuality. On a side note it’s actually a little refreshing to see a movie that doesn’t focus on the often targeted Christian and Catholic communities when making a point about same sex relations. But I digress. When the inevitable sex scene comes into play that too is handled tastefully, riding the line between erotic and romantic almost in the same vein as similar films like “Brokeback Mountain”. To put it simply, “Disobedience” could have very easily gone over the top in almost every area of its narrative but instead it’s surprisingly controlled and well paced making it a respectable but provocative and engrossing film worth appreciating.
And it’s all grounded by two incredibly subtle performances by a pair of great actresses, Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams. The two Rachels fully embrace their roles as halves of a whole. One woman is a rebel scarred by the treatment she received from her people who forged her own path at the sacrifice of her family. The other is a soft-spoken woman with a kind heart trapped by the conformity of a world she is too scared to leave. Put together these women learn from each other and rekindle the romance they felt as children that was stifled by those they, themselves, cared so much about. The Rachels have great chemistry with each other and are convincing friends and even more convincing lovers as they sell every kiss, every longing look, and every awkward exchange in public the way this story demanded. They feel like normal people. They’re both strong yet vulnerable women who, even in their early adult years, have yet to truly find their place in the world around them. While it can be dry at times, watching this relationship redevelop and these two women rediscover the passion they have for one another is heartwarming and made me feel sympathetic to their struggle as all great characters should do even while I felt no need to judge the society that sees them as sinners. While they may not be early awards contenders for the time being I can say these two women were committed to the cause and they tackled their roles incredibly.
WHAT DIDN’T WORK
For all the love I give “Disobedience” I will say in terms of character development it’s pretty much just focused on the main characters and noone else. That might seem like a odd criticism but let me explain. The two Rachels get most of the screen time and we do really get to see their romance blossom, but the only other character who really gets any attention and development is Alessandro Nivola’s Dovid who is the third piece of this triangle as a good friend to both women but a husband done wrong by the love affair. Now Nivola does fine in his part and never falls into the cliche of being an abusive husband, but outside of these three characters most of the other actors play bit parts with only minor significance to the plot. Pretty much everyone else in this film could have been, well, anyone else and I wouldn’t have noticed a difference. There are a few important character moments where Ronit has to interact with people who are uncomfortable with her return, Dovid has to convince other men he has control of his wife, and Esti has to debunk the rumors of her behavior, but they’re all just that, moments. There’s no investment in why these people they are talking to are important to the characters or what connection they share. When there its its fleeting to the point where you wonder why that moment happened at all sometimes. For all the care done to invest in world building the one area this film neglects is character development outside of its main cast which can, at times, make the story feel a little too confined.
Otherwise “Disobedience” has few flaws really. It’s a great story with committed acting and a well-developed world around it that brings you right into the action. I will say that while I personally thought the pacing was perfect this is a slow story that takes a while to build up and yet has a lot to get out in a short time. If you’re planning on seeing it for the sexual content and such you’ll be (thankfully) disappointed, but even I can admit there are some dry and boring elements to this film if I wasn’t so appreciative of arthouse media. If you’re not prepared for it this can be a nearly two-hour snore fest so it’s important that you go in ready to invest in this tale of forbidden love otherwise you’ll leave more frustrated than enlightened. This isn’t really something that’s wrong with the film, but as with most arthouse productions this film panders to a specific crowd rather than the public at large. If you’re going to go see it be aware it’s more than just tasteful nudity and women making out. There’s much more substance to it than that that must be respected in order for this film to be enjoyed. Even if you are going in with the right state of mind this movie takes patience and if you’re not willing to give it the time you may just feel like it was time poorly wasted.
“Disobedience” is a great film and a fine example of how a story can make multiple statements at once while respecting everyone involved on either side of the argument. It focuses more squarely on the love story and while this leads to a sacrifice where almost all other characters become background roles at best it does allow for a fascinating look at the relationship between religion and romance and how the line between “angel and beast”, as the movie calls it, might not be so fine. It was definitely worth the wait and proved to be a fascinating and well balanced movie with a spectacular script, dedicated performances from its leads and a mesmerizingly detailed and developed community for its setting that seems pretty accurate to the actual Jewish traditions. “Disobedience” is one of those films you don’t see to be entertained, you see it to experience a story and a form of mental awakening. On that front this film succeeds and then some.