Sebastian Lelio, director and co-script w/Rebecca Lenkiewicz based on the novel by Naomi Alderman
Starring: Rachel Weisz (Ronit Krushka), Rachel McAdams (Esti Kuperman), Alessandro Nivola (Dovid Kuperman). Anton Lesser (Rav Krushka), Bernice Stegers (Fruma Hartog), Allan Corduner (Moshe Hartog)
It’s pretty nearly impossible to imagine a successful film version of Naomi Alderman’s brilliant subversive novel Disobedience without the participation of Rachel Weisz. She gives the film gravitas, which raises the narrative to something more complex than a typical melodrama. It also helps that Weisz is Jewish from London, which is not the case with her co-stars, the New York Italian Alessandro Nivola and Ontario’s “it girl” Rachel McAdams. All three are accomplished performers, of course, so the proper background wouldn’t be necessary for them to act well, but there is an authenticity to Weisz that the others don’t match. And being authentic certainly helps when dealing with the spiritual, emotional and sexual ménage a trois that forms the central story in Disobedience.
The film, like the book, is set in North London, where Orthodox and other Jews make up a good proportion of the neighbourhood. Weisz’ character Ronit is the daughter of the local Rabbi, who dies in mid-sermon near the beginning of the film. When she finds out about her father’s death, Ronit leaves New York where she’s lived in deliberate exile for years, to attend the old Rabbi’s shiva. She’s greeted at the door by her childhood friend Dovid, her father’s favourite disciple, and soon finds out to her considerable surprise that he’s married their mutual best friend Esti. As Ronit greets the assembled mourners, it’s obvious that she hurt her father by leaving the community and they’re scandalized that she’s returned.
It’s clear that something dangerous will take place thanks to Ronit’s return but, in a subtle gesture, she’s not the one who causes the drama to occur. Throughout the film, she remains steadfast in her desire to honour her father despite their grave differences. Nor does she express a desire until late in the film to endanger Esti and Dovid’s marriage. Instead, it’s Esti who can’t stop from passionately kissing Ronit, who was first and only true love. When the Rabbi had found them in an embrace years earlier, Ronit had left London, leaving Esti to fend for herself. Soon after, the unsuspecting Dovid had proposed marriage to Esti, which had worked well enough until Ronit’s return.
Orthodox conduct in any religion demands a tribal uniformity and an obedience to the demands, religious and societal, of their culture. Rebels like Ronit leave of their own accord or figure out a way to make accommodations to the strictures of their faith. The most conflicted character in Disobedience is Esti, who would be happy to be a mother, wife and teacher except for one problem: she is a lesbian. Certain critics have been appalled that the two Rachels exchange bodily fluids—essentially spitting—in an erotic scene. Apparently, that’s too titillating and beneath what’s acceptable for two wonderful performers. All this critic can say is: grow up—the scene is there for us to believe in their feelings for each other. Last I looked, this is 2018.
My father-in-law, an ex-Communist who was always uncomfortable about his religious identity, used to answer difficult questions with some irony, (either in Yiddish or English) “Is it good for the Jews?” Naomi Alderman was attacked in some circles for not being supportive of her community by publishing her book. I say: art has its own answers. Or as Bob Dylan, another lapsed Jew once wrote, “To be outside the law, you must be honest.” Orthodox Jewry, the subject of debate in Disobedience, should be able to grow from this film and the novel that inspired it. Kudos to her, Ms. Weisz and all the creative people–in particular director Sebastian Lelio (the maker of the Oscar-winning A Fantastic Woman)–who have made a moving drama about love and religion.
Written by Marc Glassman
Adjunct Professor, Ryerson University
Director, Pages UnBound: the festival and series
Editor, POV Magazine
Editor, Montage Magazine
Film Critic, The New Classical FM
Film programmer, Planet in Focus
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