A few minutes into Disobedience, multiple characters say to Ronit (Rachel Weisz), “May you live a long life.” On its skin, it seems like a phrase of well wishes, of kindness. Here, though, the words carry an exhausted tone that seems to almost say “I care about you and wish you happiness but I’d prefer you be out of my sight.” At least, that’s how one would take it considering the icy greetings she gets from her old friend, Dovid (Alessandro Nivola), and numerous others as she attends a shiva held in honor of her recently deceased father.
Ronit’s cold treatment is based on a past she despised so much that she moved from the small town in London to hyperactive New York and became a photographer to be free from it. A notorious past that involves a former flame, Esti (Rachel McAdams) who has since married Dovid, and a relationship that goes against the teachings of the Jewish orthodox faith that dominates the tightly knit community. Ronit and her father, a rabbi with a dedicated following, had a relationship that was strained to the point that he rarely, if ever, acknowledged his only child. If he had a child, he would’ve said it came in the form of his protege Dovid. While both Ronit and Dovid have seemingly settled into their roles as the pariah and the exalted, Esti hasn’t. Upon seeing Ronit, Esti’s eyes seem to communicate a fear and a longing she had once thought disappeared along with the scorned woman. She is secured in a life of reservation as a teacher and a wife that she’s carefully maintained over the years.
It will come as a surprise to absolutely no one what happens next in Sebastián Lelio’s latest film. The music is consistently majestic and maudlin to the point it sounds like the stuff Oscar bait is made of. There is a lesbian sex scene between the two leads that has raised eyebrows (more because of the two popular actresses involved than the actual content). But musical nitpicking, pseudo-controversy, and story familiarity aside, Disobedience takes a different path that pleases overall. The focus on the love between Esti and Ronit was a given. I was pleasantly surprised by its focus on the constructs of faith, particularly in relation to Dovid and Esti, that rests within the story. Usually in a film involving someone wrestling with a strict faith, the religious character(s) are given a broad brush stroke made of willful ignorance and villainous bigotry while the rebellious lapsed faith spirit is painted as a stoic and courageous figure to be admired. Lelio, as he’s done before in films like A Fantastic Woman and Gloria, denies us easy categorizations like that. Nothing is simplistic or black and white in this movie.
In a move that feels intentional, the film, like its three main characters, seems detached, somewhat repressed which, in turn, puts us squarely into the shoes of its three leads. They aren’t heroes or villains. They’re human. Humans who feel Robert Smith’s melancholic lyrics in The Cure’s “Lovesong.” Humans who battle urges. Humans who take their theology to heart but question the overall point of it. Humans who achieve and fail within the same moment. Humans who feel the ramifications of conformity and individualism.
Having recently seen the stultifying The Mountain Between Us, I walked into Disobedience with three annoyed arm-crossing expectations that were thankfully destroyed by the film’s conclusion. Maybe it’s that I’ve exposed myself to too many poor examples but I wrongly assumed not only religious demonization, but a villainous Lifetime movie-worthy husband. The other expectation was that the film would end in passionate embraces and/or tragic consequences. Rather than focus exclusively on romance and forbidden fruit, Disobedience seemed to be about, more than anything, closure. A closure that redefines “May you live a long life” for Ronit, Esti, Dovid, and the audience.
Disobedience — Rated R. Directed by Sebastián Lelio. Starring Rachel Weisz, Rachel McAdams, and Alessandro Nivola.