Disobedience is completely unsurprising and disappointingly simplistic

Rachel Weisz, Rachel McAdams. Photo by Agatha A. Nitecka. Courtesy of Mongrel Media. Movie stills.

Chilean director Sebastian Lelio’s recent string of films, Gloria and A Fantastic Woman, portray unique, intimate experiences of women characters who are disarmingly genuine and authentic. Disobedience falls into this category, too.

New York-based photographer Ronit (Rachel Weisz) returns to her London home to attend her Orthodox rabbi father’s funeral, where she encounters her childhood friends Esti (Rachel McAdams) and Dovid (Alessandro Nivola). The two have married, and Dovid is expected to succeed Ronit’s father as the religious figure in the community. Eventually, we learn that the awkward air between the threesome is due to the reasoning behind Ronit’s departure from the religious community. She left at a young age because of her sexual orientation — and her mutual romantic feelings for Esti.

What happens next is completely unsurprising, and disappointingly simplistic. The reintroduction of a liberated woman into a patriarchal, closed-off religious community rekindles certain emotions and desires within Esti, which cannot be contained by her husband or the Sheitel (wig) she must wear as a married Orthodox Jewish woman.

Lelio and the three actors do as much as they can with this very basic love-triangle story, based on a novel by Naomi Alderman. Someone watching the film without reading the book would be led to assume that the interior emotions and conflicted head-spaces of the characters would find a more suitable outlet in prose instead of cinema. Where Lelio does his best work is focusing on the societal implications of the love triangle on the main three characters. It doesn’t delve into the community’s reactions other than to propel the plot — and in the case of one older woman, to show that not everyone in the community finds Ronit disgraceful — but the film gracefully depicts the devastating effect Esti’s desires have on Dovid, the rabbi’s star pupil, and the few prospects for Esti’s uncertain future should she choose to leave him.

Perhaps to compensate for its facile plot, the camera often lingers on close-up shots of the three leads as they each process their feelings, fresh trauma quietly unloading in their eyes as they serenely try to accept what has transpired. Ronit’s father’s home becomes a strange refuge for the two women — only in the ghostly absence of the patriarchal figure can such a place become a safe haven for two queer women.

But the pace in Disobedience feels leaden and stale compared to Lelio’s previous work. It’s telling that the sexually charged make-out scenes between Esti and Ronit – including the conspicuous detail of Ronit lustfully spitting into Esti’s mouth – are more titillating than they maybe should be. The love-making here should feel cathartic and beautiful, and while it somewhat fits those descriptors, these scenes are only interesting because the rest of the film is comparatively tedious.

The use of certain tropes in the narrative are also glaring given the film’s inertia – when Dovid starts to read a succession speech from a piece of paper, only to go off-script in a fit of frustration – one can’t help but wish that Lelio had taken more time to craft his love story adaptation by thinking through the enormity of every small artistic decision.

Originally published in National Post (May 18, 2018).