Best known for making well-regarded foreign films, Chilean director Sebastián Lelio helms his first American production, Disobedience. Starring Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams, the film tells a forbidden love story within a strict Jewish community.
Ronit Krushka is a photographer living in New York City. Her family, however, lives back in a small Orthodox Jewish community in London. Ronit doesn’t exactly get along with her overly religious family, so she has tried her best to emotionally – and physically – distance herself from them (even going as far as changing her own name). Though she has been doing fine on her own, she must return home once learning that her father, Rav Krushka, has passed away. As a rabbi, Rav Krushka was a well-respected member of the Jewish community, but Ronit’s disobedience made her something of an outcast. After returning home to honor her own father, her very presence ignites tension within the community.
Now I don’t know anything about Jewish culture, but I do know what it’s like to grow up in a religious household. With that being said, I don’t think audiences need to be Jewish or religious to appreciate this movie. if you’ve ever felt shunned or oppressed for not agreeing with family traditions, then you can understand what Ronit is going through.
Portrayed by Rachel Weisz, Ronit is a pretty vulnerable character. Though she may insist that she is happy, her actions and facial expressions suggest otherwise. It can be hard to return to your childhood home after a loved one has passed, especially when no one seems to want you there. This leaves Ronit in an odd state of sadness, regret, guilt, confusion, anger, and apathy. Though I appreciated how complicated Ronit’s character was, something felt lacking about Weisz’s performance. For how much is going on inside of Ronit’s head, Weisz’s portrayal of the character can be a bit wooden at times.
I don’t think think the stiff performance is necessarily Weisz’s fault though because most of the other actors are stiff as well. Alessandro Nivola – who portrays Rav Krushka’s closest pupil, Dovid – is also quite stoic. Despite going through a confusing time in his life, Dovid really doesn’t show any emotion. He has a surprisingly cathartic moment near the end of the film, but other than that, nothing about Dovid is all that memorable. And the same can be said for all of the other characters in Disobedience. Compared to the lively performances that Lelio was able to get in Gloria, the acting in Disobedience is plain dull.
The only performance that felt engaging came from Rachel McAdams. McAdams plays Dovid’s wife, Esti, a character that is also confused about her current situation. Unlike most of the other performances though, McAdams allows her character to show a wide range of conflicting emotions. Esti just feels like a fully fleshed out character; without McAdams’ portrayal of Esti, the rest of Disobedience would feel rather lifeless.
Thankfully, the movie does come to life once we are properly introduced to Ronit and Esti’s romantic relationship. That’s right, Disobedience is a film about a forbidden lesbian attraction within a Jewish community. That might have been an important detail to mention earlier in the review, but the lesbian narrative doesn’t really exist until halfway through the entire movie. The first half of Disobedience is completely about Ronit, her father, and how the community responds to both of them. Though these are still important plot points throughout the second half of the film, they simply become a backdrop to Ronit and Esti’s romance.
Having seen the trailer first, I was aware that Disobedience was going to be a gay love story. in the final film, however, the romantic interest between Ronit and Esti came across as is if it were supposed to be a surprising reveal. This made Disobedience feel like two separate films altogether – one about Ronit and her father, and one about Ronit and Esti. It’s possible that I only feel this way since I was aware of the fact that Ronit was going to have a lesbian relationship though, so I wonder how audience members who knew nothing about this movie feel about the revelation (and the timing of it). For me, waiting for the the love story to begin made the first half of the film feel painfully sluggish.
I liked the first half of Disobedience though; I thought it raised interesting questions about family, religion, tradition, and generational gaps. It just so happens that the second half is far more engaging.
Ronit and Esti have a raw connection together. We learn through expository dialogue that the two have known each other since childhood, and that’s easy to believe based on how they act around each other. They are both grown women, but they act like little school girls whenever they see each other. Their relationship just felt genuine. I had no problem believing that these two characters were reunited childhood lovers; their passion for each other (and the sexual tension that existed between the two of them) was evidently clear. Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams really brought these two characters to life and they had amazing chemistry together.
The best way to think of Ronit and Esti’s relationship is to visualize the lyrics from The Cure’s “Lovesong.” That might sound a little too on-the-nose, but that song is actually in the movie itself. The lyrics of “Lovesong” perfectly reflect the themes of Disobedience, so adding it into the movie was nice touch. The song also helped add some energy into a film with an otherwise forgettable soundtrack. In fact, most of the technical aspects were also forgettable. Danny Cohen’s cinematography is deliberately muted, Nathan Nugent’s editing is a painful slow-burn, the sound design is oddly low, and the screenplay is disappointingly restrained. On top of the performances already being rather stoic, all of these elements make Disobedience a frustrating film at times. Even the addition of “Lovesong” creates a jarring tonal shift since the tempo of the song doesn’t match the slower pacing of the film.
I mentioned earlier that Disobedience is Sebastián Lelio’s first American film, but that isn’t exactly true; Disobedience is an Irish-British-American production. Given Lelio’s filmography, I was simply trying to show how Lelio is growing and expanding as a director. I imagine that Disobedience is exactly the type of film that he wanted to make, but it felt like a disappointment after a movie like Gloria. Interestingly enough, Lelio is remaking Gloria for American audiences. The film is currently slated to release later on this year with Julianne Moore, John Tuturro, and Michael Cera attached. Hopefully this version of Gloria will be a more satisfying experience.
Overall, I have mixed feelings about Disobedience. I suppose I liked the concept of the subject matter more so than the actual execution of the final film. I mean, interpreting the idea of free will, discussing whether or not leaving one’s life behind is an easy thing to do, and realizing what role female desire has in patriarchal religions, are all interesting thematic elements. Yet, everything else about the film is just so unengaging.
Disobedience currently has a high critic rating on Rotten Tomatoes, but apparently the movie (as well as the book in which the film is based on) got scathing reviews from the Jewish community. I can only assume that this indicates how split audience members will be on this movie. All I can say is, if anything I mentioned in this review sounded mildly interesting to you, then you may find Disobedience worth checking out. At the very least, you’ll enjoy listening to The Cure and thinking about the lyrics to “Lovesong.”
Disobedience is currently playing in limited release at select U.S. theaters, with a wider U.K. release slated for November 30.