Disobedience is too loyal to its own detached aesthetic to be felt the way it desperately wants to be. Directed by Sebastian Lelio (A Fantastic Woman), the movie follows Ronit Krushka (Rachel Weisz) returning home to her London-based orthodox Jewish community upon the death of her father, the community’s rabbi. She reconnects with her childhood forbidden flame, Esti Kuperman (Rachel McAdams), with whom she shared an illicit affair that led to her being cast out of the community.
Ronit learns Esti is married to her cousin Dovid (Alessandro Nivola), whose leadership star is rising within the community upon the vacancy at the top. It’s a drab affair; I saw a review describe it as “turgid,” an ugly word often used for ugly purposes but nonetheless descriptive of Disobedience — a straightforward movie that only utilizes its faith community setting as a backdrop for underdeveloped themes.
It’s the sort of movie you see a trailer for at the arthouse and know precisely what you’re getting into, but hop along over to just to see if it will surprise you. No surprises.
Ronit stays with Dovid and Esti, awkwardly re-entering their lives. Her past with Esti is an open secret within a community of rules and patriarchal structure; Dovid is immediately concerned about whether his cousin and his wife will rekindle their relationship. His orientation to his community’s power structure and rules means he lacks an empathetic understanding of his wife’s sexuality, and her comfort in the rules means she is, outside of Ronit, willing to live within the confines of a life that does not truly see her. Ronit is openly bisexual and has no intention of returning to life within the community but has to spend a week between her arrival and the conclusion of her father’s services. She’s impulsive and artistic. The women quickly realize that nothing has changed between the two of them.
Community vs. Self. Chosen life v. the life laid out for you. Being hidden and being seen. These are the conflicts set up by Disobedience. The opening sequence is Rav Krushka (Anton Lesser) delivering his final sermon, a moral lesson clearly constructed to inform the conclusion of the story. Later, when Ronit and Esti are finally able to be alone in Rav’s old house, they turn on the radio — right when The Cure’s “Lovesong” is playing. It’s meant to feel like a spontaneous moment, something to make the two feel awkward, and yet it feels like a grasp.
It takes about 40 minutes of Ronit acclimating to her old culture before she and Esti truly reconnect. Without any subtlety, the film chugs along.
I guess it’s worth mentioning the halfway-mark stolen afternoon of sex between the women, which honestly felt out-of-place. It’s edited with such ferocity that it feels devoid of passion and intimacy. It’s purposefully dissonant with the slow and ponderous tone of the rest of the movie, meant to mirror the women’s erupting and primal passion, but it comes on the heels of very few moments of intimacy between the two. Criticizing the sex scene as emblematic of the film’s structural weakness might seem superficial or, I guess, perverse, but it’s the emotional explosion that defines the story and even the film’s marketing. In many ways it is the centerpiece of this film. But like much of the movie it didn’t feel intimate or expressive to me. Your mileage may vary.
Perhaps the reason the scene sticks out to me — besides the fact that it’s being advertised so heavily — is that the rest of the movie just does not sell that relationship, the story or the experience with more than a shallow sense of plot and theme. Lelio’s sound design, the arthouse warble, incessantly drones while the requisite social conflicts play out. Eventually the ending comes and, well, it’s a doozy, complete with public admission of emotional wrongdoing and running after a departing lover.
The last three years have seen a renaissance of great films about LGBTQ lives and experiences; locally, 2018 has had several so far. Lelio’s A Fantastic Woman was one of them. Disobedience isn’t. Last year saw the release of Novitiate, about young nuns exploring their sexuality and womanhood in the face of the 1950s reformation of the Catholic Church. The two aren’t really of a kind, and don’t approach either the same societies or the same themes, but both take the experience of strict patriarchal religion and ponder the experience of women, in love, within them.
Whereas Novitiate felt deeply concerned with the broader strokes of religion and its impact on the women, Disobedience takes a more focused look with Ronit and Esti. I don’t know that it matters except to say that both movies, in the end, use the women’s relationship to try to say something about religious faith that kind of reduces their experiences into each as either shorthand for sin or a teachable moment for the patriarchy that controls them. There’s something dissatisfying and weirdly dehumanizing with both movies, but at least Novitiate felt like it was approaching a broader idea with its dehumanization and more or less succeeds at making a statement; here, none of the characters’ stories really land, and we’re left with a muddled film about two women whose story ultimately lets a confused, conservative man off the hook without providing a satisfying or insightful resolution into their relationship or faith community or patriarchal systems that make it harder for women to flourish.
The performances are solid, at times great, as to be expected from the lead trio . But there’s something missing from Disobedience, a movie that yearns to be felt but doesn’t quite know how to express itself.