In Disobedience, director Sebastián Lelio leads us through what at first feels—however masterfully crafted and gorgeously acted—like a sadly predictable plot. But don’t be fooled. Two women, Ronit (Rachel Weisz) and Esti (Rachel McAdams), who love each other fiercely and consistently from childhood into adulthood, are thwarted in their affection by the hyper-conservative London Hassidic community they were both born into. Ronit has fled the community after her father, Rav Krushka (played briefly and brilliantly by Anton Lesser), walked in on the teens, and she’s been living in New York, ostracized from her close-knit community. She doesn’t even learn that her father is terminally ill, or that he has died, or when Esti and the duo’s best friend, Dovid Kuperman (Alessandro Nivola), are married. When she does learn about her father’s death and returns to London for the week of shiva, she is horrified to find that her father had arranged Esti’s marriage to Dovid—one of the Rav’s star students—in order to “cure” Esti of her homosexual inclination. Lelio leads us through the thorny narrative of the shiva week, as old flames are rekindled and deep pains excavated.
Eighty percent of the movie—again, masterfully crafted and gorgeously acted—nevertheless appeared to be telling a story I as a moviegoing queer woman know all too well: gay people, oppressed by a conservative society, must discover their inner strength to break free against cruel/oppressive societal powers. Alternatively: gay people, oppressed by a conservative society, die or kill themselves when they fail to find their inner strength. “Bury your queers” didn’t become an internet meme overnight. Disobedience’s great visual and symbolic focus on the women’s wigs is one of the baldest expressions of that trope-typical oppression set up as the predictable antagonist of queer love. In her “liberated” moments—sexual and emotional—Esti peels off her dark, unflattering wig, worn as a sign of faith and modesty by married Orthodox women.
It’s difficult to shake the feeling that the underlying thinking of this narrative is If only Esti could become empowered enough to leave this backward community and live an independent life with her lover. If only she’d just leave her wig off.
It’s the undertone of intense faith in this narrative which rescues Disobedience from that cliché arc. Esti is intensely religious. “Hashem is my life,” she says. In her darkest moments, her refuge is in prayer. Her personal devotion to her faith is not a trap that the narrative sets her up to shake off on the way to a happy ending. Her entrenchment is more complex, and the movie answers that complicated entanglement with equal clarity and caution. “We aren’t medieval,” says Esti of her marriage—although Ronit clearly believes that it is. But the narrative doesn’t narrow itself to Ronit’s perception. Disobedience does not seek sexual liberation as the be-all, end-all of Esti’s struggle. It pushes toward a cognizant, emotional, and mutual freedom with far greater depth and far greater stakes for its three central characters. It asks for understanding, rather than severing.
There is a line near the conclusion of the film when Dovid states, simply and publicly, “I do not have the understanding.” It’s a marvelous keystone line for a marvelous movie. In a movie fraught with combative viewpoints, what looks like easy antagonism becomes yearning empathy. Esti does not want to escape her community: she wants her community and her lover both to understand her and her desire, both sexual and philosophical. Set among a community of extreme faith, such yielding and compromising is a thing of grace. It invents a new bend to narrative that the tropes can’t anticipate.
The leads’ performances are sterling. Weisz, McAdams, and Nivola carry the weight of the narrative on their shoulders and make it look effortless. The conviction and focus that each character brings on screen is tremendous. Sebastián Lelio fills the scenes with silence so tense it feels electric. The creak of the well-worn houses and the breathing of the characters features enormously in the soundscape, but comes across as balanced rather than claustrophobic. Shots establish a kind of privacy around each character, giving them the space to be both active and contemplative as the complexity of the story builds. The film is simply brimming with sharp, inexhaustible mastery, in front of and behind the camera. Its technical achievements are a marvel all their own.
There are some points of clumsiness, though, even in the movie’s utter devotion to depicting the details of Hassidic life. People walk past mezzuzahs left and right. McAdams tumbles through Shabbos candle brachahs. Dovid tosses away his tallit katan carelessly on his way to bed. The difference between the leads’ prayers and the hazan’s davening in the film’s conclusion is the difference between night and day. For all these snags, the movie isn’t tripped up. Although I entered the theater prepared to be irritated by exactly these kinds of minutia, I found that these small points of friction paled in the working of the mechanism of the film as a whole. Even though McAdams trips through the candle blessings, the fierce balance of affection among Ronit, Esti, and Dovid makes the scene radiant. The spirit of diligence and devotion that went into the film’s creation shines.
Simply put, Disobedience is a compelling achievement for its stars and for its creative minds. It’s the kind of movie that isn’t afraid to leave the viewer alone, looking into an empty room long after the characters have left, to feel the full beauty and loss of what was there before.