“Disobedience ” is a slow-burn drama that reveals its true self slowly to the audience.
From director Sebastián Lelio (“A Fantastic Woman”) and based on Naomi Alderman’s book, the film is a measured and sometime tedious character study set in a small Orthodox Jewish community in North London about a woman coming home after years away. It’s a film that seems at first to be about one thing, but it transforms into something quite different, and the journey is a compelling one.
The audience entry point to this insular community is Ronit Krushka (Rachel Weisz), a cool New York photographer with a long, slightly wild mane and an artist’s temperament. She gets a phone call in the middle of one of her portrait sessions, and spirals into a night of drinking and drunken pursuits before getting on a plane to London.
Her father has died, and she goes back to mourn him in spite of their apparent estrangement, hurt that no one let her know he was sick. She arrives at the door of an old friend, Dovid (Alessandro Nivola), who, like everyone else she encounters from her past, seems surprised that she’s there. She gets a shock of her own, too, to discover that Dovid has married their childhood friend Esti (Rachel McAdams). Life has moved on without Ronit, and no one felt compelled to tell her anything.
You do get the sense that it was Ronit who was the one who did the abandoning, leaving her father and the Orthodox lifestyle, which Dovid and Esti are wholly entrenched in. And Weisz is wholly delightful as she teases and clashes with the conservative women and men who are horrified that she’s come back to disrupt their well-defined ways of life. There’s a spark of anarchy about her, and she knows exactly how to push buttons, while still, ultimately, being generally respectful to her old religion. One barn burner scene at a dinner table crystallizes why she had to leave.
“Disobedience” is not, however, interested in providing much context for Orthodox ways, instead choosing to just immerse you in the experience.
But there are more layers to Ronit’s surprise over Esti and Dovid’s marriage that the film takes its time in exploring, although anyone who has seen a trailer for the film will know where it’s going.
Esti seems on the surface to be a devoted and proper wife, with a life of her own and a passion for her job as a teacher at a local girls’ school. She wears a sheitel in public, and removes it in the bedroom dutifully. This passionless routine is not a result of a dull marriage, however. Esti, it seems has a secret that Ronit’s return has reignited – she’s attracted to women.
And for Esti, who is very much like a child at times, there is only Ronit. The tension between them builds to a gorgeous crescendo over the course of an afternoon and into a heady day of escape. Their impassioned romance functions as much as a release for the audience as it does for Esti, who has been suppressing her true desires for so long. (There is one jaw-dropping moment between the two women that will probably get people talking, too. You’ll know it when you see it.)
It’s at this point when the film shifts from being about Ronit and her grief and ostracization, to Esti and her desire for liberation, and not just from the community and her husband, but from her crippling fear of what God will think of her for her natural inclinations.
McAdams and Weisz are on fire in “Disobedience” showing sides to their talents that we’ve never seen before in this truly unique film. “Disobedience” might not look, on the surface, like it’s for everyone, but its specificity is what makes it worthy and, almost, great.