Sebastián Lelio (director)
30 November 2018 (released)
26 November 2018
Disobedience stars Rachel Weisz (The Lobster, The Constant Gardener), Rachel McAdams (The Notebook, Spotlight) and Alessandro Nivola (American Hustle).
Adapted from Naomi Alderman’s novel, of the same title, the film follows New York photographer, Ronit Khruska’s (Weisz), return to her orthodox Jewish roots in North London, after being told her rabbi father Rav has died.
Director, Sebastián Lelio, who co-wrote the screenplay with Rebecca Lenkiewicz, shows Ronit’s deep trepidation about going home for the funeral, signposting the guarded reception she receives when she turns up at a remembrance gathering. This scene is skilfully drawn, succinctly setting up the key characters, providing important backstory, whilst alluding to future threads of conflict.
Lelio beautifully orchestrates the awkwardness of Ronit’s reunion with her childhood friends, Esti (McAdams) and Dovid (Nivola). The lack of contact with them hints at a complicated past, and one which is linked to Ronit’s decision to exile herself from her orthodox upbringing.
The drama gradually builds as Ronit learns Esti and Dovid are now married, and Dovid is primed to take over her father’s position at the synagogue, leaving Ronit with an acute sense of displacement.
An unexpected twist arrives when romantic feelings are reignited between Ronit and Esti, will this shift allegiances between the three protagonists, and could it be the bomb that explodes Dovid and Esti’s husband-wife relationship?
Themes of sacrifice, freedom and honour intertwine. Many of the scenes allude to the title, but who is being or indeed yearns to be, disobedient - and against what, or towards whom? These questions aren’t directly answered or tied-off – and rightly so. Even Dovid, the most devout of the three, experiences self-doubt and confusion. As the film unfolds it acknowledges the chaos and pain of family ties and relationships, even in the most disciplined and rigid of environments.
Drawing a portrait of a private society in a modern world, Lelio produces some fascinating vignettes. Ronit is quick to note that Esti has embraced the Haredi tradition of women wearing wigs. This makes the scene between Ronit and her Uncle Hartog in his wigmaker’s shop all the more poignant, embedding Weisz both on the inside and the outside of her own heritage. Whilst the sequence delivers some surprising news about her inheritance, it also plays with themes of female identity and Ronit’s sense of belonging to her family, and also her rejection of it.
When the setting of a film is so dominant and unique, the characters run the risk of getting lost in the story of the place itself, not so with Weisz, McAdams and Nivola, who all knock out powerful portrayals of multifaceted, and flawed human beings.
Yet, despite the commanding performances, the film starts to lose its way as it builds towards the end. Lelio’s eagerness to ratchet up the dramatic tension in the latter part of the film, feels a little contrived, with too many life-changing decisions to be made in quick succession.
Ultimately, this ends up conflicting with the naturalism of the direction earlier on and weakens the impact of the film, but, this aside, there are too few films with women leading the narrative and the action, and on this score, Disobedience has much to recommend it.