After the international acclaim of A Fantastic Woman, that landed Sebastián Lelio his first Academy Award for a foreign language film, the Chilean director makes his English language debut with an adaptation of British author Naomi Alderman’s 2006 novel Disobedience. A fraught, quiet film, it navigates the complicated reunion of a woman and her estranged Orthodox Jewish community after the death of her father, a Rabbi.
Ronit Krushka (Rachel Weisz) has been living and working as a photographer in New York City for some years under the professional name ‘Ronnie Curtis,’ but a devastating phone call brings her back to her childhood home in North London. There Ronit is reunited with the two best friends of her youth, Dovid (Alessandro Nivola) and Esti (Rachel McAdams), whom she is stunned to learn have married in her absence. Ronit’s return creates an immediate and tangible rift in the tight-knit Orthodox community; the hardened stares of the neighbours she left behind betray the gravity of the great shame that led Ronit to leave in the first place. Disobedience’s marketing makes no secret of the plot which is about to unravel as Ronit and Esti confront the feelings between them that have laid dormant for years.
As the romance they kindled as young girls begins to reignite, unspoken words and repressed desire bubble away under the surface until finally, the women are compelled to give in. Remarkably, the score does not surrender to romantic crescendo; instead the stillness is permeated only by staccato breaths and anxious sobs that speak the language of love desperate to be felt. Nor does the narrative rely on flashbacks to colour the past; instead the painful history Ronit and Esti share is communicated in the beautifully controlled performances by Weisz and McAdams that fray at the edges, loaded with a devastating tension and inevitability. The two women portray antitheses of lifestyle, but are connected by chemistry that feels innately genuine and deeply affective.
The triangle of protagonists is completed by Dovid, who cares deeply for both his friends but wrestles with honour and his calling to take over the late Rabbi’s responsibilities for the community he cherishes. Though a potentially antagonistic character, the weight of Dovid’s decisions is not taken lightly, and his conflicted character represents far more than a simple obstacle for the central romance.
Director Lelio paints his picture with a muted palette; sombre tones reflect the grave atmosphere for most of the film, a feeling it never really shakes. Upon my first viewing of the film in sunny LA earlier this year, I was nevertheless struck with a sudden homesickness for my gloomy city. The film strikes an acute balance in its representation of space that at once justifies Ronit’s suffocation and necessary escape, but also nurtures Esti’s sense of familiarity and empowerment in her home life and rituals.
What is striking is that Lelio chooses to divert the narrative from the novel’s ending, “so that you would love it,” by the director’s own joking admission in a post-screening Q&A. Rather than joining the ranks of sapphic romance doused in irrevocable tragedy, Disobedience offers a nuanced and reflective look at reconciling fundamental parts of one’s identity, with a comfortingly open-ended outlook.
by Megan Wilson
Megan Wilson is a northerner currently studying film at King’s College London, and recently completed a semester at the University of Michigan. She is passionate about cats, old musicals, and turtleneck sweaters, but is not in fact an 80-year-old man. Her favourite films include Carol, Moonlight, Singin’ in the Rain, and Matilda. Find her on Twitter: @bertmacklln