Disobedience

Disobedience
, the first English-language feature by Chilean director Sebastián Lelio (Gloria, A Fantastic Woman), considers the constrictive
nature of traditional Jewish culture, particularly as it impacts the lives
of women and homosexuals who grow up within it. The film tells the story of
a woman named Ronit (Rachel Weisz), the estranged daughter of a prominent
Orthodox rabbi, who returns to the close-knit Jewish community of her youth
after her father dies. Having lived amid secular society for years, she
inspires contempt in many of her relatives and old acquaintances upon her
return; they look down on her (some of them more openly than others) for not
being a practicing Jew and for expressing little desire to marry or have
children. Two of her childhood friends, Dovid (Alessandro Nivola) and Esti
(Rachel McAdams), welcome her back, however, and let her stay in their
home. This leads to problems when it comes out that Ronit and Esti were in
love as teenagers and still experience desire for one another. As
homosexuality is taboo in Orthodox Judaism, the women face persecution once their secret is revealed, and Esti struggles to reconcile her love for Ronit with her religious faith.

Lelio, who is neither gay nor Jewish, aims to make the story feel
universal, emphasizing the women’s feelings of longing and guilt, and to
some extent he succeeds. As usual in the director’s work, the performances
are sensitive and relatable, and the leads establish a realistic sense of
intimacy. These strengths make Disobedience a compelling tale of
forbidden love—one wants to see Ronit and Esti realize their passion and
escape the strictures of the Orthodox community. Yet Lelio’s depiction of
that community leaves something to be desired. The film lacks the inside
feel of Joshua Z. Weinstein’s recent drama Menashe or the
documentary Trembling Before G-d (which also considered the plight
of homosexuals growing up in Orthodox Jewish communities), not to mention
any number of Israeli films on Orthodox life. It’s not that Lelio’s
portrait of the community is implausible—the director recruited the help of
multiple consultants and the details indeed feel accurate—it’s that the
romance so overwhelms the community portrait that one doesn’t really sense
the hold that Jewish tradition has over many of the characters.

This problem is evident in the film’s mise-en-scene. Whereas superior films
about Orthodox life (Menashe, Ronit and Shlomi Elkabetz’s Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem) employ rigid visual
compositions that make the characters seem trapped in their lives, Lelio’s
framing is loose and sloppy. The characters of Disobedience have
plenty of room to move around within shots; it never feels as though they
have to wrestle with their fates. As a result, Jewish tradition doesn’t
register as an especially powerful force—the characters have every
opportunity to resist it. One doesn’t really fear for Ronit and Esti, even
after their secret is exposed. Rather, one simply waits for them to reject
the Orthodox order and act on their love for each other. Lelio still
generates some suspense with the premise, inspiring viewers to wonder when
the women will choose happiness over repression, but his visual design
strongly suggests that they’ll make this choice eventually.

Disobedience
isn’t totally without merit on a visual level; the film’s drab color scheme
conveys the joylessness of a repressed life where the compositions do not.
Lelio and cinematographer Danny Cohen emphasize blacks, browns, and grays,
conjuring up a world drained of color. (In fact the film may have been more
powerful had it been shot in black and white.) This strategy forces viewers
to concentrate on the characters’ behavior, as it’s nearly the sole source
of visual interest. Yet because Lelio fails to convey how repressive Esti’s
life is, her rekindled romance with Ronit—which should register like a
flash of lightning—doesn’t make the impact that it should. That’s not to
say that Weisz and McAdams lack chemistry; it’s just that the performances
so clearly delineate the characters’ buried passions that their affair
doesn’t seem that shocking once it occurs.

Lelio and cowriter Rebecca Leniewicz also fail to develop Dovid’s character
to a satisfying degree. The protege of Ronit’s late father, Dovid applies
himself to rabbinical studies with the same devotion he brings to his
marriage to Esti. He’s a sensitive soul who clearly wants his wife to be
happy, yet the movie is elusive about where his sensitivity comes from.
Dovid’s reaction to the women’s romance is oddly understated—it’s possible
that he feels stifled under Orthodox culture as well, but the movie
provides so little information about his background that it’s difficult to
say for certain. The filmmakers operate under the presumption that any
sensitive soul would reject a repressive, homophobic culture on principle,
and in doing so they trivialize the culture they wish to explore.   v