Film Review: Disobedience

A finely acted but oddly one-dimensional glimpse into a lesbian love affair in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish London enclave.
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Sebastián Lelio’s Disobedience introduces audiences to the insular subculture of London-based ultra-Orthodox Jews and is arguably praiseworthy for that. But it also wants to shock viewers out of their assumptions (assuming they had any)—there’s a doozy of a scene with one devout woman spitting into the mouth of her lesbian lover—and in the end feels oddly one-dimensional, though fascinating in its exoticism, its prurient appeal to the gawker.

Paradoxically, the Oscar-winning Chilean director, making his first English-language film, tries to do just the opposite with a dreary seriousness of purpose throughout. Slow pacing, claustrophobic close-ups and a dull cinematic palette define the aesthetic. This film’s a puzzler, at once staid and scandalous.

The acting is excellent all around. Loosely (very loosely) based on Naomi Alderman’s debut novel, Disobedience recounts what happens when feisty Ronit (Rachel Weisz, who also serves as a producer), formerly an Orthodox Jew now living an emancipated life in New York, returns to her native English community after her estranged father, a revered Rabbi (Anton Lesser), has died. She is not welcomed by anyone short of her childhood friend Dovid (Alessandro Nivola), who has his own feelings of ambivalence for Ronit, and his mousy, conflicted wife Esti (Rachel McAdams), with whom Ronit was sexually involved years earlier. Reunited, their passions are rekindled.

Lelio is clearly attracted to outside-the-box love stories—more so in his Oscar-earning A Fantastic Woman but also in Gloria, both films presenting outliers who are at odds with family and the culture at large.

In Gloria, the most credible and least judgmental of the three films, a middle-aged divorcée finds love with a mature and recently divorced man, but their romance is thwarted at every turn thanks to his demanding ex, adult daughters and the broader, amorphous intrusions of our heroes’ respective pasts. It’s not easy to blame anybody.

A Fantastic Woman presents a more sensational story where the battle lines are clearly drawn. Following the death of her male live-in lover, a trans woman is brutalized by her partner’s surviving siblings and ex-wife and, most egregiously, shunned from his wake and funeral. She is further humiliated by the police, who view her as a freak. Her maltreatment is so excessive as to (at moments) defy credibility and underscore the villains’ villainy.

Similarly, Disobedience lacks nuance. It’s modernity vs. traditionalism; sexuality vs. Puritanism; freedom vs. repression; feminism vs. misogyny; creativity vs. pedagogy; and most central, secularism vs. religion.

Pious Jews (pious anybody) are an easy target with their rigid dress codes, dietary rules, religious rituals and endless dos and don’ts. Received wisdom has it that the women in particular are oppressed, reproducing cows who have no other options. In point of fact, while many have jumped ship for those reasons, an equal if not larger number of secular women have come onboard, choosing Orthodoxy as a preferable alternative to their hitherto “liberated” lifestyles.

But shades of gray do not fit into Lelio’s vision. Consider Ronit aggressively assaulting her hosts at a Shabbos dinner, throwing up to them their narrow-mindedness regarding women. She emerges as a boor, but more troubling is the one-dimensionality with which she has been drawn (in stark contrast to the novel).

In Lelio’s spin, Ronit becomes an unequivocal embodiment of the free-spirited, photographer who has fully cut the umbilical cord of her past. Admittedly, she tears her sweater after hearing of her father’s death. It’s a Jewish ritual, the “rending of a garment,” that expresses grief and mourning. It’s a nice detail (presented without explanation) that hints at Ronit’s complex relationship with her heritage, which never materializes further in this film.

Indeed, throughout, each scenario that exudes tradition-free deliverance is cause for celebration, often at the cost of plausibility—most pointedly towards the end in a moment of mutual reconciliation when our three leads engage in a group hug. The religious laws (Halacha) against a man and a woman who are not married to each other touching at all (Negiah), let alone hugging, are inviolate. The communal squeeze would never happen and if in the highly unlikely event it did occur, undercurrents of profound struggle would be evident in all three characters, individually and collectively.

It’s all the more frustrating since that cried-out-for ambiguity is present in the Alderman work, flawed though it may be with its own humdinger of an ending (that mercifully Lelio cut from the film). Still, for the most part it evokes a multi-layered world, starting with the community’s religious beliefs that are simultaneously, to quote Alderman, “this and that,” burden and privilege, God’s will and free will, choice and fate. Indeed, every chapter begins with a religious discussion that presages what’s to follow and reiterates the complex, contradictory culture that is Jewish Orthodoxy.

And then there are the characters, the original and reconceived film versions that have become reductive in translation. Alderman’s Ronit is a financial analyst in a monogamous relationship with a married man. It’s a love story without a future, but Ronit is in no way promiscuous. In the film she’s morphed into a photojournalist who picks up strangers for anonymous sex (an uninhibited artist and thus a more striking contrast to her tradition-bound lineage and especially the uninspired/entrapped Esti, who is a Yeshiva teacher).

Now check out Ronit’s father the Rabbi, a rigid cleric who disowns his daughter, leaving his house and all its contents to the synagogue. In the novel, his home and its furnishings belong to the temple to begin with, but wanting his daughter to have some remembrance, he makes sure candlesticks that she’s always loved get to her. In the film, they’re collecting dust in Dad’s house until Esti retrieves them. One can’t help wondering why Lelio views a severed father-daughter relationship as more riveting than an ongoing bond, however tenuous the thread.

The women’s fluid sexuality is open to interpretation on the page and screen, though once again it’s more complexly conceived in the written text where Ronit is heterosexual (or seems to be), though she’s clearly experimented with same-sex couplings. Whatever feelings she may have had for Esti are long gone, whereas Esti has not gotten over Ronit. Esti defines herself as gay but on some level loves her husband too. Lelio captures the latter relationship. Dovid is the most successfully drawn character in the film and is more fully fleshed out than in the novel. The suggestion that the three of them had a profound bond as youngsters—that may or may not have been sexual—is effectively alluded to onscreen.

The world of the ultra-Orthodox is not frequently dramatized on film. The topic has limited appeal and can easily miss the mark, treading a thin line (as it does) between being truthful but not stereotypical; informed but not dull; empathic but not sentimental. Such Israeli films as Fill the Void, The Women’s Balcony and Ushpizin pull it off. New York had a homegrown winner last summer with its Yiddish-language indie Menashe, a sensitive and disturbing narrative set among the Hasidim in Borough Park that centered on a widowed father who is pressured into relinquishing his beloved young son to a detested brother-in-law because he is married. Orthodox tradition requires that a child be brought up by a “mother.”

Films about forbidden love among the devout sect are even trickier to make and often suffer from fakery beyond redemption. Think the treacle-dripping A Stranger Among Us (tough female cop embraces spirituality after flirtation with Hasidic youth) and, far worse, the offensive A Price Above Rubies, featuring a Hasidic woman bored by her devout husband, raped by her brother-in-law and shunned by her community when she finds true love with a Puerto-Rican jewelry designer.

On the flip side, Felix and Meira, set in Montreal’s Orthodox enclave, depicting a restless and frustrated Hasidic wife who falls in love with an equally disenfranchised French-Canadian (with his own family baggage), is quite wonderful in its delicacy and lack of resolution. Even Meira’s Orthodox husband is a thoughtful, compassionate and torn figure.

Still, for depictions of gender-bending among the Orthodox, nothing quite equals I.B. Singer’s “Yentl,” not Barbra Streisand’s film, a revisionist PC spin if ever there was one, nor even the play co-authored by Singer himself, but rather the original short story about a young 19th-century Polish shtetl girl who disguises herself as a boy in order to study the Talmud, falls in love with a man, but is married off to a woman who loves him/her. The end is open to interpretation, but what remains undisputed is freedom’s cost.

Regrettably, the same cannot be said for Disobedience. As the credits roll, you feel distanced from the story, with the uncanny sense that you’ve been a voyeur, watching something you shouldn’t.

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