Disobedience Review: A Taboo Love Story That's More Subtle Than Sexy

Designed by Richard Chance.
If you're going to make a movie in which Rachel Weisz spits in Rachel McAdams' mouth during sex, it seems fair to assume that you know people are going to talk about it. Still, in the same way that the peach scene from Call Me By Your Name dominated that moving, beautiful film's press tour, it seems almost unfortunate that Disobedience has gained notoriety for something that stands almost separate from this contemplative film. Not because the scene isn't enjoyable to watch (it is) or because it feels exploitative (it doesn't), but because, for all the hype about its sex scene, Disobedience isn't a salacious, or voyeuristic film. And that, more than Weisz's and McAdams' exchange of bodily fluids, is what defines Sebastian Lelio's (A Fantastic Woman, Gloria) English-language debut.
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Weisz plays Ronit, a photographer living in New York, whose father's death forces her return to the North London Orthodox Jewish community she cut ties with years ago. With rumors still swirling about why she left, and what she's been up to since, Ronit temporarily moves in with childhood friends Dovid (Alessandro Nivola) and Esti (Rachel McAdams), who stayed behind and have since married. In both cases, there's a past there: Dovid, her father's protégé and heir apparent to his rabbinical responsibilities, was clearly the man she was intended to marry; Esti, the woman who took her place, was her teenage lover, and the reason for her abrupt departure.
Still, the film doesn't dwell too much on Ronit's exodus, as it were, focusing instead on her homecoming, and that bittersweet feeling of accepting that the place you once knew is no longer quite your own. That approach is what makes Disobedience feel so fresh. Whereas most modern "off the derech," (the Hebrew word for "path" used to describe people who have left the community) stories focus on Jews struggling to acclimate to their new lives, this film instead takes a look at what happens when you try to fit back into your old one.
Needless to say, it doesn't go smoothly. Ronit barely crosses Dovid's threshold before attempting to hug him, a big no no in Orthodox Jewish gender relations. Likewise, her relationship with the remaining members of her family is strained. Lelio sets up a subdued atmosphere that conveys deep and roiling tensions simmering under a seemingly calm surface, aided by cinematographer Danny Cohen's somber, murky palette.
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A particularly testy Shabbat dinner serves as a boiling point for Ronit, who can no longer keep her hurt at being kept in the dark about her father's illness to herself. Weisz does a fantastic job of conveying her character's conflicted inner feelings about this life: she enjoys stirring up shit, as evidenced by her biting comments to the Rabbi's wife about how ending up married with a brood of newborns might have led her to die by suicide; but she also clearly craves the sort of connection and community that only comes by adhering to the strict rules that govern Orthodox Jewish life. An early scene in which she tears her black shirt upon learning of her father's death, a custom observed by Jews in mourning, is a sign that some of the old ways still hold sway. Yet she never feels more alone than when she appears walking among a procession of mourners, an outsider within the crowd. There is no caricature in her portrayal, and none of the blanket condemnation that's so often present in works dealing with such an insular and rigid community.
The same goes for McAdams as Esti, a character treated with the nuance her particular situation deserves (even if her British accent is a little hard to swallow). As the one who stayed behind, it would have been easy to show her faith as forced, her marriage imposed. But while Esti is most definitely a woman struggling with beliefs that may clash with her true identity, her commitment to her way of life, and the reasons she leads it, are never in question. Likewise, Dovid's affection for God, his long-lost friend, and most of all, his wife, are true, which makes his own personal struggle to let go of Esti much more affecting to watch than could have been the case.
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The script, adapted by Lelio and playwright Rebecca Lenkiewicz from the novel by Naomi Alderman, is subtle, avoiding over-explanation and exposition of a way of life that may be unfamiliar to viewers. Instead, the audience, like Ronit, must feel their way through the customs, bumping into new or forgotten obstacles along the way. Matthew Herbert’s score helps underscore (pun definitely intended) that feeling of unease, as if every action could cause irreparable damage to a fragile status quo.
When Ronit and Esti do finally give in to their renewed passion, the scene is a lot quieter than one would expect from sex that involves spittle, in keeping with the film's overall atmosphere of restraint. Weisz (who produced the film) and McAdams discussed the material at length with Lelio to avoid a repeat of Blue Is the Warmest Color, accused by some of succumbing to the male gaze. As a result, the scene feels much more about empowerment than submission. But that same restraint is also a curse for a film whose marketability depends on selling a steamy tale of forbidden love between two women in a repressive environment. And in that sense, the movie doesn't quite deliver. But in the end, perhaps that's a good thing.
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