Sebastián Lelio’s “Disobedience” is a beautiful, fraught, and emotionally nuanced drama that wrestles with hard questions about the tension between the life we’re born into and the one we choose for ourselves. The title alone suggests a holy status quo, as well as a biblical impulse to spurn it. A lesbian love story that’s set in a community where unmarried men and women aren’t even allowed to touch each other and the patriarchy has made itself divinely unimpeachable, the film uses the preordination of sexuality as a lens through which to confront the strictures of faith and the role they impose on self-identity. And it does that with a sex scene in which Rachel Weisz delicately spits into Rachel McAdams’ mouth.
The movie opens inside an Orthodox synagogue in the London suburb of Hendon, where the frail rabbi (Anton Lesser) is sermonizing about how free will is what separates humans from the angels and beasts. The old man preaches about respecting our capacity to decide things for ourselves, and then — in between thoughts — he drops dead. That probably wouldn’t have been his first choice, but it wasn’t a choice he got to make.
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3,000 miles away, the rabbi’s daughter is most definitely doing things on her own terms. A photographer in New York City, Ronit Khruska (Rachel Weisz) shoots the kind of people who she’d never even meet had she stayed in Hendon. (In a movie that frequently visits Jewish cemeteries, it’s telling that the first goy we see is covered in tattoos.) She’s living the secular life, very far from frum, when she gets the news that she’s been orphaned.
Returning home, she learns that her devoutly observant childhood best friends are now married: the stern Dovid (Alessandro Nivola), who’s in line to be the new rabbi, and his demure wife Esti (Rachel McAdams), who stares at the wall when he has sex with her every Friday night. They begrudginglyagree to let Ronit stay in their guest room while she mourns — it’s not as if the childless couple has a full house. Still, Dovid has good reason to be hesitant: There’s a whole lot of history here.
Adapted from Naomi Alderman’s 2006 novel of the same name, “Disobedience” is Lelio’s first English-language film (the Chilean director’s “A Fantastic Woman” opens in theaters on November 17), and he couldn’t have picked a more foreign milieu to explore. However, thanks in large part to the lived-in specificity of the source material, nothing is lost in translation. Lelio brings a vivid and appropriately solemn reality to the Hendon orthodox community. Ronit’s dislocation is conveyed through the smallest details, such as how Dovid recoils when she tries to touch his face, or how — when she casually dons a wig, reconnecting with her old sense of self — everyone she encounters motions for her to remove it, as though the disguise has only further exposed her. The film doesn’t move at a particularly fast pace, but these well-sculpted moments of crisis don’t allow your attention to wander.
At first, the fleeting moments of eye contact that Ronit and Esti share across the table during shabbat dinner seem to convey a solidarity more than anything else; their knowing looks are like those exchanged between inmates when a prison guard walks past. But there’s more to it than that, and the ashes of their long-dormant romance soon become molten (with a little help from a certain song by The Cure ). “Disobedience” fumbles so tentatively toward its love affair that it makes “Carol” feel like it has the pace of softcore porn. However, these women have already been wounded by the consequences of their shared desire; the sex is more intense, but that’s the only time they allow themselves to get carried away.
Both Weisz and McAdams do a phenomenal job of negotiating who their characters are versus who their characters feel as though they have to be. Weisz, who also produced the film, has played many such darkly self-possessed women before, but McAdams is something of a revelation. Esti is a person of faith, and the Orthodox life is the only one she’s ever known. In a film that’s inevitably critical of fundamentalist precepts (and their hostility toward feminist thought), the script that Lelio co-wrote with Rebecca Lenkiewicz doesn’t do enough to establish Esti’s connection to her community, or illustrate why remaining Dovid’s wife isn’t a show of weakness. But McAdams picks up the slack; watch the way she dutifully tugs off her clothes before they try to conceive, or how she wears her wig with a mannequin’s perfection. She is a woman of deliberate choices, yet one whose life is defined by a decision that HaShem made for her.
McAdams’ immaculate performance allows “Disobedience” to unfold as a story about Ronit falling in love with the woman she didn’t want to become, the two characters effectively the same person split in two. Esti is Ronit’s connection to home, but also represents everything she tried to escape. This dynamic results in a fascinatingly conflicted tug-of-war, albeit one that Dovid tends to render as cold and mournful as the gray London winter in which it takes place. Nivola may not be the first person who comes to mind when casting a stern Orthodox Jewish husband, but he’s wholly believable under the beard and shtreimel. Dovid is an understandably frustrated man, and watching him wrestle with his wife’s displaced feelings is one of the film’s most unexpected rewards.
If anything, this quiet, insular drama would have done well to end with Dovid, as Lelio builds to a beautiful and powerfully ambiguous moment that brings all the major characters together. But “Disobedience” keeps going, its listless final scenes cementing the impression that this story is too richly textured for the time Lelio had to disentangle it. We’re left with a number of questions, some inviting and others simply frustrating. But only one of them truly matters, and “Disobedience” frames it well. “May you live a long life,” the Orthodox people regularly say to one another. But what good is a long life if it isn’t the one you wanted?
“Disobedience” premiered at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.