Disobedience (2017)

Sebastián Lelio’s Disobedience is an unorthodox love story set within the constraints of an Orthodox Jewish community.

Something Inside So Strong

by Alexa Dalby


CAUTION: Here be spoilers

When her father, a respected rabbi, dies suddenly, Ronit (Rachel Weisz) returns to north London from New York, where she lives now as a successful photographer. The Jewish community she knew, who are sitting shiva together until the funeral, are surprised to see her. It seems that she has been estranged from her father for a long time. The relationship between her and her father’s protegé, and now rabbi, Dovid (Alessandro Nivola), and his wife Esti (Rachel McAdams) is tense with an unspoken history. Her two closest friends were now married but no one had told her.

The ceremonies and rigid observances are the opposite of Ronit’s life now and they inflame rather than assuage her very real, raw, painful grief at her father’s death. From the disapproving looks that meet her, it’s clear that she is seen as some kind of black sheep or prodigal daughter. Later, there’s an uncomfortably spiky Friday night Sabbath dinner table scene with friends of the family, another rabbi and his wife.

She and Esti, we discover when they talk alone, had been lovers, until they were caught breaking the taboos of their Orthodox community. When their relationship was discovered, Ronit fled and was disowned by her father but Esti stayed and married – and conformed. She’s now a traditional wig-wearing, submissive wife and a teacher in a Jewish girls’ school. But seeing each other again after so long re-ignites the passionate feelings the two women had for each other.

But Disobedience is not the overblown soap opera you might imagine that could emerge from this overwrought situation. Lelio’s previous film was A Fantastic Woman, which told a heart-wrenchingly difficult story with great sensitivity. Disobedience too deals with the aftermath of grief but tells the story of two fantastic women and their unstoppable love for each other. Each has chosen a different path but which of them is the bravest? Obedience and disobedience to God was the theme of the rabbi’s sermon that opens the film but what do these concepts mean at this very personal level?

And Dovid is not the person you’d expect either. Tipped as the successor to Ronit’s father, even though he’s become the religious figurehead in the community, for a man in his position he shows surprising kindness, understanding and compassion – and love – to his wife and her lover.

It’s Lelio’s first English-language film, adapted from Naomi Alderman’s novel, and he has conjured wonderful performances from all the cast. The story is told subtly and indirectly through glances and what’s not said. The Orthodox community, so specific to north London, is closely and unjudgementally observed and the cinematography by Danny Cohen creates the drabness of Hendon in winter and the claustrophobic atmosphere of this enclosed community in dull shades of grey and brown. The end result is an intelligent, adult and humane film about finding a way to live, of reconciling religion with real life, in an almost impossible situation.

Disobedience is released on 30 November 2018 in the UK.

Join the discussion