‘Disobedience’ explores nuances of sexuality, religion

Disobedience TIFF/Courtesy

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Grade 4.0/5.0

“Disobedience” does not spare the audience of its characters’ difficulties and anguish. Sebastián Lelio, who recently won an Oscar for his film “A Fantastic Woman,” directed “Disobedience,” which is based on the 2006 novel by Naomi Alderman of the same name. The novel received mixed reviews: While many praised it, a notably critical review came from the late Dina Rabinovitch, a Jewish Orthodox woman herself.

The film follows Ronit Krushka (Rachel Weisz), an ex-Orthodox woman who returns home after the death of her father, a respected rabbi in London. She reconnects with her childhood friends Esti (Rachel McAdams) and Dovid Kuperman (Alessandro Nivola), who are now married. Before long, Esti and Ronit rekindle their past romantic relationship.

“Disobedience” is a tender portrayal of love that invites beauty as well as suffering. Weisz and McAdams give stellar performances, and Weisz in particular imbues her role with subtlety. Her character Ronit may have left the community, but she convinces us that her departure has not diminished her love for her people or her late father.

Though the film could be best critiqued by a queer Orthodox (or ex-Orthodox) woman, as an outsider, the depiction was by no means perfect, with some remarks feeling heavy-handed and one-dimensional, such as Ronit and Esti’s conversation about having sex every Shabbat.

Ronit dismisses the practice as medieval, but the actual commandment is far more complicated and not inherently backward, despite the implications of their conversation. This heavy-handed condemnation of certain foundations of Orthodox life is offset by Nivola’s performance as Dovid. Dovid is devout, and this devotion is respected by the narrative — none of his character flaws are because of his religiosity.

The strength of the three core characters, Ronit, Esti and Dovid, imbues the intersection between sexuality and religion with the nuance it deserves. While the central relationship is undoubtedly between Ronit and Esti (and, by proxy, Esti and Dovid), it is the moments between Ronit and Dovid that produce some of the most thought-provoking interactions, largely because of the compelling performances of Weisz and Nivola.

One scene in particular highlights the beautiful intricacy of this relationship. When Ronit flees a Shabbat dinner after the conversation grows hostile, Dovid follows to walk her home. In a moment of clarity, he understands the overwhelming grief she is feeling, reaching out to mime holding her face. Dovid is shomer negiah, meaning he refrains from touching those of the opposite sex, with some exceptions. Meanwhile, Esti stands farther down the street, apart.

The staging of this moment highlights the separation between all three characters — all are grieving, but none can quite reach the others. It’s a beautiful moment as staged by Lelio, one augmented in tone by the gray color palette of the film.

The film also manages to tackle, with success, one of the more difficult feats in LGBTQ+ media: specifically, media dealing with relationships between two women — the sex scene.

This is largely because of Weisz, who gave input and edits on the scene. Weisz wanted the scene to feel necessary and to provide a literal depiction of the freedom Esti is trying to find — a freedom she can only actualize by no longer suppressing her identity. The result is a scene that does not feel at all exploitative but instead accomplishes its narrative objective.

“Disobedience” shows that accepting oneself is never easy and almost never painless, but it is nevertheless freeing — a message deeply rooted in the identities it represents, identities that rarely make it to the big screen.

“Disobedience” will play at Embarcadero Center Cinema on May 3.

Danielle Hilborn covers LGBTQ+ media. Contact her at [email protected].