Traditions of faith, love and family are all on the table in Disobedience, in which New Yorker Ronnie Curtis, née Ronit Khruska (Rachel Weisz), returns after many years to her native London and an orthodox Jewish community that, frankly, doesn’t want her. The occasion is the passing of her father, an influential leader and Talmudic scholar — the Rav of the community — who drops dead, portentously, at the beginning of the film after delivering a tract on human beings and free will. Things don’t turn out especially well for Ronit, a struggling photographer who had hoped for an inheritance but finds that her father had written her out of his will. Barely allowed back into the family circle thanks mainly to the kindness of her cousin Dovid (Alessandro Nivola), she clashes, vocally, with the community’s elders; it’s as if she’s been itching, over all these years, just to give them another piece of her mind. And when she discovers that Esti (Rachel McAdams), her shy lover from many years ago, has joined the family as Ronit’s husband, it catches her by surprise, breaks her heart, and arouses some long-dormant feelings, all at once.
The first section of the film is mainly Ronit’s story, depicting her abrasive, bull-in-a-china-shop navigation of all these ghosts of her past. I don’t mean to defend the closed-mindedness of anybody’s conservative religious community, but Weisz plays her character with a degree of self-regard that eclipses what must have been a brave decision that allowed her to escape these surroundings in the first place. At the same time, director Sebastián Lelio’s portrayal of the orthodox community is exceptionally even-handed; he doesn’t soft-pedal its stifling and anachronistic nature, but neither does he present it as hopelessly cruel or unyielding. Somewhere between Ronit’s free-spiritedness and the traditional (heterosexual) gender roles imposed by religion, Lelio sees a middle ground. That compromise begins to emerge in the film’s second section, which is more about Esti — her suppressed lesbianism, her romantic and sexual love for Ronit, and her aspiration to be a good wife and mother. McAdams is really fine in this role, evincing not so much repression or unhappiness as a simple yearning. She seems to inhabit a kind of netherworld, bereft of identity — if she is to become something, it will involve coming to terms with her past, her present and her future. And that will require deciding what kind of love she can live without.
If you’ve read anything else on Disobedience, you know that the centerpiece is one of those latent-passions-boiling-over sex scenes; this one is pretty raw as contemporary Hollywood cinema goes, I guess, if fairly unremarkable in the annals of this type of thing. Lelio seems determined that the scene not play as exploitative, so not only is the framing very careful, but also both Weisz and McAdams remain mostly clothed or otherwise covered throughout despite various rubbing and grinding. A two-shot of the women with their hands in each other’s underwear gets the point across, but mostly the fire burns hotter when the camera is in close-up and the two are simply kissing like nobody’s watching. The most explicit gambit is a shot depicting Weisz spitting, repeatedly, into McAdams’ open mouth, which is a move I know only from online porn (in a different context I might read it as religious metaphor); it’s distracting, but it does give the scene a fetishistic, almost ritualistic charge that’s at odds with the tone of the rest of the film.
What is that tone? Glad you asked. Because this film is sedate. Director Sebastián Lelio barely leaves an aesthetic mark on the novel by Naomi Alderman; cinematographer Danny Cohen relies on a lot of natural light and a desaturated digital look with largely monochrome palettes emphasizing browns and dreary greens. The film’s London locations don’t add a whole lot of pizzazz; neither do Weisz’s New York-dark wardrobe or McAdams’ plain shifts and dark wig, though they do express the women visually as a matching pair. The tone warms up considerably in scenes set among the rabbis, who congregate in brightly lit spaces, dressed in white, as though the light of their own knowledge were falling upon them. Performances, too, are muted, though this generally works in the film’s favor — Weisz may overplay her character’s brittle insecurity, but nobody here is interested in screamy, shouty performances. McAdams conveys her submissive position in the community through body language, but expresses isolation and heartbreak largely through working the muscles on her face in and out of tension. It’s a remarkable performance — wig or no, she almost looks like a different woman entirely in her scenes alone with Weisz. Nivola, too, is excellent and understated, binding up what could have been a showy display of anger, resentment, and resignation in a short outburst and a quiet, quick departure from the residence.
In fact, Nivola’s low-key performance turns out to be every bit as critical to the film’s success as that of the women. As Esti’s husband, he personifies the controlling hand that keeps women like her in their place at the side of the men in charge; as her and Ronit’s old best friend, he embodies something else, too — a more understanding face of orthodoxy that recognizes the needs of the heart and rebels against his faith’s stricter tenets. The big problem with Disobedience is that this is all extremely schematic, developing situations and presenting choices that feel very writerly. So the film is perhaps too neatly framed in terms of free will, which encompasses Ronit’s decision to leave the community alongside Esti’s decision to stay, as well as the second chance Ronit’s arrival gives Esti to, potentially, make a break for freedom as an adult. And the point is clear: those choices are fraught, and there’s an element of destiny at play here: even decisions made freely may be preordained.