On the heels of a well-deserved Oscar win (Best Foreign Language Film for last year’s A Fantastic Woman), Sebastián Lelio returns to theaters this week with Disobedience, a story of love and loss and living one’s truth, set in London’s Orthodox Jewish community. Produced by and starring Oscar winner Rachel Weisz (alongside Oscar nominee Rachel McAdams), Lelio adapted the screenplay (from Naomi Alderman’s 2006 novel) with Rebecca Lenkiewicz, best known for writing another Best Foreign Language Oscar winner, Ida.
All that to say: we’re in good hands here—and it shows.
Though the title may conjure something more cynical and harsh, Disobedience is actually quite a moving, thoughtful narrative on what we leave behind when we leave home, the relationships that mean the most in our lives (romantic and otherwise), and how essential defiance and rebellion are in pursuit of living the life we’re meant to live.
Weisz stars as Ronit, a hot-shot portrait photographer based in New York who’s built a life for herself on the other side of an ocean after escaping (or being banished from) her conservative Orthodox Jewish community in London. The only child of a revered Rabbi, she’s summoned home when he passes away, and thus sets in motion a whole series of disruptions in the lives and loves she thought she’d left behind.
Services are being held at the home of her dear childhood friend Dovid (Alessandro Nivola), himself a disciple and “spiritual son” of the Rabbi, who died claiming to have no children at all, so devastated was he by Ronit’s youthful indiscretions. Dovid is soft spoken but firm, and doesn’t hide his surprise at seeing Ronit on his doorstep; as they catch up on all that’s happened since she left, Ronit learns that Dovid is now married. Just as she’s chastising him about which God-fearing, submissive woman he might’ve paired off with, she’s caught off guard to learn that, in fact, his wife is Esti (Rachel McAdams), the third in their trio of close childhood friends.
The chemistry between Ronit and Esti sparks immediately, and as we learn more about their history together, we get a glimpse into the boundaries of acceptable behavior in this cloistered society. What these women shared as teenagers, be it lust or love or some mix of the two, has no place in a community guided by tradition, order and obligation. Once their rendezvous were discovered (by the Rabbi, no less), separation and suppression was inevitable.
Years later, both women are older and a bit wiser; nevertheless, seeing each other again evokes in each of them the connection they once shared. And in Esti’s case, her truest self—a woman who loves women—comes bursting back to the surface, blasting right through the wig and the body suit and the sex-only-on-Fridays of her married life.
It’s at this point in the review that most will bring up that scene. Like Call Me By Your Name and Blue is the Warmest Color before it, the sex scene in Disobedience is as meaningful as it is carnal. It’s also quite necessary, a pulsing, throbbing few minutes of desire and consumption and satisfaction that it’s clear neither of these women typically allows herself. There’s actually no nudity anywhere in the sequence, but that doesn’t prevent the scene, as delivered by two actors at the top of their craft, from being one of the most powerful you’ll see all year.
More than a few of the themes and devices utilized throughout the film feel a bit too neatly put together, from the sermon about free will as a foundation for everything we’re about to see, to Ronit’s photography as a way to see the world through a different lens. But don’t let that distract from what’s at the core of the story. Through the two very different journeys Ronit and Esti (and to some degree even Dovid) are on, they’re really quite the same. Each manifests a disobedience out of necessity, casting off of societal norms and tradition’s expectations—sometimes in degrees, sometimes all at once—to step out of the shadows and into their truths.